HC Deb 17 February 1994 vol 237 cc1081-161

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

[Relevant document: The Eighth Report from the Defence Committee on Royal Navy Commitments and Resources, HC 637 of Session 1992–93, and its First Special Report, HC 142 of Session 1993–94, containing the Government Reply thereto.]

4.21 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

It is, of course, a year which has been of great significance for all of us, marking as it does one of the great events of history—the deciding battle, 50 years ago, for the future of Europe and the greatest combined land, sea and air operation of the second world war.

It is only right that the achievement of our forces who fought throughout the second world war with tremendous determination and courage should be marked by special commemorative events. The Royal Navy, the subject of today's debate, paid its own special tribute in May last year when Merseyside hosted a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous campaign of the second world war. The Royal Navy will also play a full part in the forthcoming D-day events which commemorate the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken in history.

Among other things, such commemorative events serve to remind us of our responsibility to ensure that such a war never happens again. The military tasks of today for our armed forces, set out in the defence White Paper "Defending Our Future", published last July, are those deemed necessary by the Government both to maintain the freedom and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and its dependent territories and to enable the United Kingdom to pursue its legitimate interests at home and abroad.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early. Before he departs—perhaps he has just done so—from the subject of the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest events that led to the total elimination, downfall and defeat of Nazism, may I ask whether he is aware that many of us take the view that not enough is known by the younger generation about the significance of D-day compared, for example, to French children, who perhaps have a better reason for understanding it? Can he do anything with his ministerial colleagues in other Departments to ensure that, in schools at least, there is far greater understanding of the significance of D-day? The people who participated and lost their lives did so for the most heroic cause conceivable. All of us are deeply proud, 50 years on, that the people who took part—the people who died and the people who survived—did so to ensure that Nazism was defeated.

Mr. Hanley

I agree, and I am sure that the House agrees utterly with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments. I am certain that associated with the 50th anniversary of D-day will be a number of events throughout the country and television programmes and media opportunities for explaining exactly what he has said. It is important that this generation understands the sacrifice that was made, and the reasons why it was made 50 years ago.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Those are wonderful sentiments. I remember looking at the maps from Benghazi to Tobruk and all the rest as a little kid and thinking about those great victories, but I also reflect on what has happened today. The Germans have captured Rover and there is a Japanese flag flying over the Greater London council.

Mr. Hanley

As usual, the hon. Gentleman fails to rise to the occasion and is somewhat flippant. The matters to which the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred were far more serious than the hon. Gentleman's weak joke.

Hon. Members will be aware of the significant changes that are taking place in the strategic setting of our overseas and defence policy. Some have enhanced the security of the United Kingdom and its allies; others have added to uncertainty and created new commitments. It is reasonable to ask where maritime forces fit in this modern world.

The whole ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence and I remain convinced that there is an enduring need for sea power. The generic capabilities of our maritime forces—their reach, endurance, mobility, flexibility and ability to station off a hostile coastline—make them ideal for deterrent or peacekeeping missions, or both. The Polaris and, in the future, the Trident submarines, of course, provide the ultimate deterrent. As for conventional forces, the three core elements of the Royal Navy are the capabilities provided by our nuclear-powered submarines, our aircraft carrier task force and our amphibious forces.

The SSN—the strategic submarine nuclear—has tremendous mobility which allows it to be deployed rapidly and covertly and it can contribute greatly to enforcing sea control. Carriers and their escorting frigates and destroyers can provide considerable support to the land battle, with fixed and rotary wing support and, of course, air defence, surface strike and anti-submarine warfare. Our amphibious ships are a highly flexible national capability which is admired and admirably suited to the present strategic environment.

In the Adriatic, our national carrier task group, with HMS Ark Royal currently acting as flagship, continues to stand ready to provide additional protection for British forces ashore in Bosnia. The carrier-based Sea Harriers have been conducting training missions over land in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to ensure their readiness to provide close air support if required. They have also been flying air defence missions as part of the NATO operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia and are available to take part in NATO air operations if called upon to help protect Sarajevo and its citizens from further bombardment by the parties to the conflict.

Four Sea King MK4 helicopters from 845 Squadron have been based in Split since November 1992. They provide key casualty evacuation support for land forces operating with the UN and have almost become stars in their own right on television. Support ships, the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries Resource and Sir Geraint based in Split, are also playing a key role in providing essential logistics support to our troops ashore. In addition to our national forces deployed, we have ships in NATO's Standing Naval Force Mediterranean and the Standing Naval Force Atlantic, which are both operating in the Adriatic in support of Operation Maritime Guard, the joint NATO-WEU operation to monitor and enforce compliance with the arms embargo against the whole of the former Yugoslavia and the trade sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro.

Elsewhere, our long-standing commitments in the Gulf, the south Atlantic and the Caribbean continue. In the Gulf, the Armilla patrol—currently HMS Glasgow and HMS Cumberland, supported by Royal Fleet Auxiliary Bayleaf—is now in its 14th year of continuous operations. The Armilla patrol makes a valuable contribution to regional security and stability and to the protection of British interests in the region. An interesting recent development has been the occasional presence in the Gulf of a Russian task group which has operated alongside allied ships in support of the remaining UN sanctions against Iraq.

In the south Atlantic, the Navy continues to patrol around the Falklands and provides a visible demonstration of our continued commitment to the security of the islands. HMS Endurance also continues to deploy annually to the area in support of our interests in the Antarctic region. Indeed, earlier this month, HMS Endurance pressed further south into the Antarctic's Weddell sea than any other royal naval ship in history.

In the Caribbean, the West Indies guard ship—the WIGS—has continued to carry out its duties successfully in support of the ground forces in Belize. This commitment has afforded the opportunity for the Royal Navy to make an important contribution in the area by assisting the United States and other authorities in the international campaign to counter the operation of drug traffickers. WIGS has achieved a number of successes in this area over the past year. It has been finding millions of dollars worth of illicit drugs.

The West Indies guard ship, in the latter part of the year, also assisted in the United Nations embargo operations off Haiti. Our future defence policy in that region—including the need for the full-time presence of the WIGS—is currently under review. I envisage, however, that our historic ties with the area will continue, and that the Royal Navy will continue to deploy there.

In the far east, the three Hong Kong patrol craft provide support to the Hong Kong garrison and assistance to the Hong Kong authorities in a variety of law and order tasks. In south-east Asia, until mid-November last year, Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel made a valuable contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Cambodia.

The Royal Navy also carries out a range of overseas visits which support and extend bilateral naval contacts and are also undertaken at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in support of Her Majesty's Government's interests and our industry overseas. One of the most notable overseas visits of recent months was that carried out by HMS Norfolk and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Grey Rover to South Africa at the end of January. The aim of the visit was to renew relations between the Royal Navy and the South African navy, and they were the first foreign naval ships to visit since sanctions were lifted. The ships and crew received a remarkably warm welcome in Simonstown and Cape Town, where 69,000 people visited our ships.

The Navy is also playing a full part in the process of developing contacts with Russia and countries in central and eastern Europe. An impressive programme of contacts has been developed with these countries over the past four years, and highlights of the past year have included visits by royal naval vessels and submarines to ports in Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. HMS Avenger's visit last September to Novorossisk in Russia, where no foreign warship had visited in living memory, coincided with the 50th anniversary of the city's liberation during the second world war, the 150th anniversary of its founding and the 300th anniversary of the Russian navy.

Reciprocating those visits, for the first time ever, three Russian frigates visited the Gibraltar naval base and, on departure, took part in a short exercise with HMS Brilliant. Here in the United Kingdom, in October, the Russian training ship Gangut visited Dartmouth and Britannia royal naval college. Also, the Royal Navy will again be working closely with the Russian armed forces in March, when a royal naval destroyer will take part in a multinational maritime exercise in the Barents sea, which has been devised in response to an initiative by our Norwegian allies.

The House will also be aware of the important agreement, announced this week in Moscow by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, concerning joint military exercises between units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, beginning in 1995. The exercises will represent a major step forward in the process of deepening our defence relationship with Russia, will usefully promote closer contact and better understanding between our respective armed forces, and will accord fully with the spirit of the partnership for peace proposals announced at the NATO summit in Brussels on 10 January. Details of those proposed exercises are to be developed jointly by our respective military authorities, and also add to the excellent work of my right hon. and learned Friend, the Secretary of State, who visited Russia last year.

All that shows that we can be proud of a Royal Navy that continues to operate in all parts of the globe—from the north Atlantic to Antarctica, from the Caribbean to the far east, and many places in between. At home, the Royal Navy has continued its task of ensuring the integrity—

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

In his list of deployments, the Minister mentioned Ark Royal and its current station off Bosnia. Both he and the Secretary of State will no doubt be aware of the correspondence that I have had with the Department relating to Ark Royal and its refit in 1959, when asbestos was stripped out of its boilers by ratings who often had inadequate protection. I have mentioned to him the case of Mr. Michael Ward in my constituency who is now suffering gravely from asbestosis. Will the Minister agree to look at those case papers and, if he feels it appropriate, is he prepared to meet Mr. Ward and me to make representations on his behalf?

Mr. Hanley

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his intention to raise this matter concerning a previous HMS Ark Royal. Mr. Ward has telephoned a number of officials in the Ministry. On several occasions, he has been invited to write giving details of his claim, but he has not yet done so. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will encourage him to get in contact. It is not possible, without details, to consider his claim. We do not know his employment record since his discharge from the Royal Navy in 1963, and it is not immediately clear that his asbestosis is necessarily attributable to his naval service. However, we shall gladly look into the matter. If details are provided, the hon. Gentleman and I will be able to contact each other again.

At home, the Royal Navy has continued its task of looking after British territorial waters and protecting British rights and activities in the surrounding seas. The maintenance of a 24-hours-a-day, year-round presence in our waters provides considerable reassurance to merchant vessels and other mariners that they can rely on the Royal Navy in the event of an accident or emergency.

The Navy's fishery protection squadron is continuing to conduct fishery protection patrols on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency. The squadron also carries out a number of duties for other Government Departments, including the monitoring of dumping at sea, combating oil pollution and the famous search and rescue operations. In 1993 naval search and rescue crews responded to 647 call-outs and winched to safety some 600 people requiring assistance. Assistance can be provided to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise when the opportunity allows. Last year, three Royal Navy vessels assisted customs officers to board a merchant vessel suspected of drug trafficking off Land's End.

Measures to improve the safety of fishing vessels operating in waters frequented by submerged submarines have recently been implemented. Moreover, the recently introduced SUBFACTS information scheme, which broadcasts advance warnings of dived submarine movements to other mariners, has been extended to include the Sea of Hebrides, the Minches and sea areas off Plymouth and Portland. It is only right that I should pay tribute to Members of Parliament of all parties for the constructive way in which they have helped in the development of the SUBFACTS programme by recognising the need for it.

The Royal Navy also supports the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the defeat of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Ships of the Navy's Northern Ireland squadron conduct counter-terrorist deterrent patrols in both the coastal and the inland waters of the Province. The Royal Marines provide troops to support operations and contribute commando units on short tour infantry deployments. In addition, since last year and until further notice, Royal Navy Sea King helicopters—currently from 707 Squadron—have contributed to military operations in support of the RUC.

It is the Government's clear intention that, at a time of public expenditure stringency, we should obtain the greatest possible output from the available resources. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that defence should play its part. As hon. Members will be aware, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has established a radical and searching scrutiny of defence support functions. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who heads that initiative, will deal in more detail with "Front Line First" later, if time permits and if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It is important to remember that, in spite of major changes in the way we do business, as well as the pressures on the defence budget, there is still a healthy naval procurement programme in hand. Work continues on the landing platform helicopter, our helicopter carrier ordered last May; tenders are outstanding for a further batch of up to seven Sandown class single role minehunters; 18 new FRS2 Sea Harriers are on order, as part of a deal worth some £200 million; and a contract has been awarded for the development and production of Sonar 2076, which is part of our extensive programme to modernise the Trafalgar class attack submarines. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement will spend more time on that aspect of our work later in the debate.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

As my hon. Friend will know, almost 400 conventional submarines are deployed around the world, more than 200 of them by third-world countries. It is therefore essential that we keep our power of anti-submarine warfare at full capacity and I was grateful for the account that he gave of some of the programmes. Does he agree that it is essential that we go ahead undisturbed with the programme to purchase the excellent Westland EH101 Merlin helicopter, which is an essential part of our anti-submarine warfare capacity?

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend is a former Defence Minister and will know that we are well aware of the excellent capabilities of the EH101s. Will he allow my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to respond to that question? Negotiations are under way but, if there is anything to add, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to do so.

I was mentioning the Trafalgar class attack submarines and the fact that my hon. Friend may be able to spend a little time on that subject later. I shall conclude my opening remarks to allow hon. Members as much time as possible to speak on the wide range of issues which cover the Royal Navy. I wish to emphasise that at the heart of the Royal Navy, including the Royal Marines, are our men and women. They serve at sea, on shore and in the air to maintain the high standards of quality, loyalty and efficiency of which we are justly proud. It is encouraging to report that they are working hard and that those with key operational commitments especially find, and continue to find, their work rewarding and stimulating.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend at that point, but does he agree that the morale of the excellent young men and women who serve in the Royal Navy would be damaged if compulsory random testing for drugs were introduced? That would have implications for the majority of young sailors; as we know, although the problem exists, it is small.

Mr. Hanley

Compulsory random drug testing is being studied by all three forces. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Army recently carried out two trials, one in Berlin and one in the United Kingdom, and the results are being examined. My hon. Friend has said that it is a small problem, but it is growing and it is serious, especially when we are talking of men and women who have control of not only expensive but potentially dangerous property. A mistake or an action that has been caused by, or has been affected by, drugs or drink—causing serious episodes when abused—has great impact. We must consider those issues seriously. The Royal Navy has no immediate plans to introduce compulsory random drug testing, but I would support it if it decided that it was necessary.

I was telling the House that morale in the Navy is generally good. I pay great tribute to all in the Royal Navy for keeping their morale as high as it is. In difficult times of contraction of our armed forces, the men and women in the Navy understand the rationale behind the decisions. Morale is good, notably among those working on some of the modern, lean-manned ships, such as the type 23 frigates with reduced complements, where particular challenges are offered. Even on type 23 frigates, men and women work together. We are living in times of change -and times of challenge, but I know that our men and women are rising to those challenges.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

My hon. Friend refers to men and women rising to the challenge. Does he agree that it is not a universal view in the Royal Navy that the mixture of sexes at sea in a front-line fighting unit is necessarily for the good and that there are many who believe that the efficiency of the Royal Navy has been diminished by the presence of Wrens at sea?

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend expresses a view which I hear from time to time when I visit Royal Navy ships and bases, but it is not shared by the majority of people who work in the Royal Navy. The women in the armed forces have always undertaken a wide variety of duties and, over the past three or four years, we have announced decisions to widen their employment opportunities further and to recruit more. The number of women in the services in general has increased over the past five years from 16,000 to 18,000. That shows that not only are there places in the armed forces for women but that women want to take those places. I see no reason on earth why they should not do so.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Apart from the additional costs of accommodating women at sea—a factor that I am sure my hon. Friend considers seriously—will he comment again on the substantial costs to the Exchequer that have been incurred in granting compensation awards to women of the Royal Navy who have become pregnant? It is an intolerable state of affairs that people who sign on to serve their country, and who thereby should be available for any duty at the behest of the Crown, are compensated for not being available.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend mentions a matter which has caused considerable concern over recent months. It is a finite problem, because those women who were discharged from the armed forces between August 1978 and August 1990 would have no reason to be discharged now because the employment regulations have changed. We were apparently at fault in discharging women in that way. The level of compensation paid to them seems to have been extremely high, but it would not be right for me to query the right of a woman to take an action in court or the amount of the settlements, since those are beyond our control.

I recognise that this matter has given rise to offence in many quarters, especially as the compensation may have been seen by some as excessive-in the light of elements of compensation for people wounded in warfare or in action. Nevertheless, that has been the law.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

It appears that the Minister is trying to mislead the House because, in answer to a written question which I tabled, he said that the average compensation was just over £5,000. That does not seem high to me.

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman may be confusing the difference between the settlements which were arranged between the parties and those in which people took the passage of law through tribunals to the furthest possible extent. There are differences between awards made recently by certain tribunals and cases in which women, who were quite within their rights, negotiated with the forces, which regard themselves as responsible employers, and reached what I regard as sensible settlements. It is a finite matter. As I said, the employment practices changed in August 1990, so we should see an eventual end to such cases.

Those matters are peripheral to the main impact of the work of men and women in our forces. Women in the Navy are contributing at every level. Not a single hon. Member could visit a Royal Navy ship and, standing on the bridge, fail to recognise the contribution that women are making to the Royal Navy. The amalgamation of the Wrens into the Royal Navy allows women no longer to be subject to any discrimination over rank. I would not mind seeing—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) may regret the day—a woman admiral in the Royal Navy. I would not mind a woman driving a ship.

Mr. Ottaway

That would be perfectly acceptable to me if it were an all-Wren ship.

Mr. Hanley

I am sure that my hon. Friend would love to serve on such a ship. But there is no need for all-Wren or all-male ships. Men and women work extremely well together. There are only some areas in which women cannot serve, such as on minesweepers, where the accommodation is far too small, and in submarines, which were not built to allow separation for the purposes of privacy. Times have changed since my hon. Friend served on HMS Eagle. His service was not only gallant but long,and I look forward to his advice in future—but on this subject he is on a losing wicket.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of women afloat, will he consider the possibility that the answers that he is given by serving officers and others in our armed services are conditioned by the feeling that perhaps their answers should be politically correct?

Mr. Hanley

I am afraid that I must tell my hon. Friend that I do not regard it as "politically correct" to open up the opportunity for the armed forces of this country to accept those who are talented and intelligent and want to serve, and to choose from 100 per cent. of the population rather than from less than 50 per cent. The opportunities afforded to women have shown that they can achieve the highest level of national life, and there is no reason why they cannot serve in the armed forces, where that is possible. There are certainly areas in which it is still impossible for women to serve. We understand that, but the number of such areas is falling dramatically.

We have a woman monarch, and we have had a woman Prime Minister and a woman lord mayor of London. I see no reason why we cannot have—[HON. MEMBERS: "And a woman Speaker."] And a woman Speaker, indeed. I must mention that. There is no reason why we cannot have a woman first sea lord in due course.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We have a woman Deputy Speaker as well, and she would like to see the Minister's face rather than his back.

Mr. Hanley

Actually, Madam Deputy Speaker, you were seeing my better side.

Indeed, we have a Deputy Speaker who is not only a woman, but a lady as well. I must mention your interest in the Royal Navy, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that, by convention, you are not allowed to make speeches in this place. Your interest in the Royal Navy over the years has been as great as that of any hon. Member—indeed, greater—and you have led several delegations to me in the interests of the Royal Navy. I hope that you do not mind if I break that confidence.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

On that theme, getting back to basics, could not the Minister, on behalf of the Government Front Bench, say that some of his best friends are women?

Mr. Hanley

I do not think that I shall comment on that.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

On a serious point, now that we have discussed the roles that women have played in the life of the nation, one thing is missing from the list. When will Royal Navy ships be provided with woman-sized equipment? For instance, fire fighting suits are much too big and cumbersome for women to join firefighting teams and some of the shoring-up equipment is far too heavy for women to lift. Problems have been reported from the decks of many ships because of women's inability to lift the heavy loads and to take part in some of the ordinary team workings of the ship. Either some of the equipment will have to be made smaller and adapted for use by female sailors, or women will continue to be discriminated against on the mess decks of our ships. That serious problem was reported to me extensively during my time with the Navy last year.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend is right; practical problems have been inherited from times past, and changes are being made. My hon. Friend mentioned firefighting suits. Not long ago I was on HMS Norfolk during a firefighting exercise, and women were taking a full part, wearing suits that fitted them perfectly.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

That was just for your visit.

Mr. Hanley

I do not think it was. In any event, I believe that those uniforms are available for all women serving in the Royal Navy. My hon. Friend made a good point about the fact that we must adapt to new circumstances. Obviously, there are certain tasks in which those who are not as physically strong as others will find themselves restricted, and we must continue to work on those areas. I hope that my hon. Friend does not feel that there is a general feeling of inadequacy surrounding women serving at sea. According to a recent survey, they seem to be serving extremely well, and more and more men serving at sea welcome both their presence and their ability.

Mr. Devlin

I am sorry to press the point, but it is important. We should have discrimination on grounds not of sex but of size and strength, just as there are restrictions on who can join the firefighting service in civilian life. Women who cannot lift certain loads, are not of a certain size and cannot perform certain tasks are not allowed into the civilian firefighting service, so why are they allowed to go to sea when they are patently not able to do the job?

Mr. Hanley

Women will go to sea if they can do the job. I assure my hon. Friend that we take into careful and serious consideration the ability of people, whatever size they are, to use the equipment safely for the purpose for which it is intended. It would be wrong to require a person of diminutive stature to take on a task that he or she could not safely do, whether on board ship or anywhere else.

Dr. Reid

Male or female.

Mr. Hanley

Indeed, male or female.

In introducing the debate I have covered a wide range of activities both at home and abroad—

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I was waiting until my hon. Friend's peroration to hear whether, although this is a debate about the Royal Navy, he would make even passing references to the Merchant Navy. He mentioned the worldwide role which the Royal Navy plays, and he also mentioned the Falklands. He will recall that half the fleet that went to the Falklands consisted of ships taken up from trade.

I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will have considered the size of our merchant fleet, and what would happen in any future operation similar to the Falklands campaign—there are likely to be many of them from now on, in support of the United Nations or under a NATO banner. The Ministry must consider not only whether we have enough ships to take up from trade but whether, if those ships happen to be foreign ships under charter, we have enough British crews and officers in the Merchant Navy available to man them.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I am glad that he has intervened, because it would be wrong not to mention the extremely valuable role played by the United Kingdom merchant fleet and the tasks that the courageous men and women serving in it carry out every year. I must agree with my hon. Friend that in the past decade there has been a significant decline in the British-flagged merchant fleet. The Ministry of Defence in conjunction with the Department of Transport, keeps a close watch on the numbers of strategic ships to ensure that its plans are capable of being carried out if—God forbid—another Falklands campaign were needed.

The reasons for the decline range from the worldwide slump in the fortunes of shipping registries to changes in trading and even, in some parts of the world, changes in fiscal policy. In recent years the rate of decline has slowed, but the decline seems set to continue, albeit at a much reduced rate. However, we are confident that we can still meet the need for ships and crews should it arise.

Finally, as I have already said, I have ranged widely in geographical terms, with good reason. Had I not done so, I could not have hoped to give any real impression of what the Royal Navy is doing. This is an annual debate, and it is therefore right that it should, in effect, be a catalogue of what the Royal Navy has achieved over the past 12 months, not only in defence of this country but through its personnel in their role as diplomats extraordinary as they travel the world. It is also important that we as a Government do as much as we can to ensure that the senior service remains one of the most capable and effective navies in the world. I know that I take the whole House with me when I say how proud we are of our Royal Navy.

4.59 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

On behalf of the Opposition, I am pleased fully to endorse what the Minister said about the Normandy landings and D-day, which I suppose in defence-speak today would be called a wonderful example of amphibiosity. That is one of the many new words that the Ministry of Defence has coined, rather like "downsizing", which reminds me of London Underground saying that fares will be "revised" when it means increased.

Clearly, Labour Members share wholly with the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House pride in our Royal Navy, admiration for the skill and expertise of the men and women in the Navy and confidence in their ability to respond to a changing world as the kaleidoscope of international events makes such changes necessary.

Although few hon. Members have direct knowledge of life in the Navy—the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) is one such example, but perhaps a bad example because his views on women may derive from an earlier age—there is considerable expertise, especially among members of the Select Committee, whose reports are always widely respected and eagerly awaited. Undoubtedly, that expertise will be displayed tonight.

The main focus of our debate will be partially overshadowed by the grave developments in Bosnia. It is appropriate to put on record our position on Bosnia, where the Royal Navy is mightily involved. First, we regret that there has been no statement today on the Government's response to the key new development—the United Nations request for more troops. Secondly, the Opposition have maintained an unwavering record of support for the deployment of British forces to assist the humanitarian effort in Bosnia.

Over the past days, thanks to the negotiating skills, determination and courage of our British United Nations general, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, and the forces under his command, a ceasefire has been in operation in Sarajevo. General Rose has called for an additional 3,000 troops to help him to enforce that ceasefire. Certainly, we believe that the United Kingdom should contribute to those forces.

The Government's response, which was announced this afternoon, is welcome so far as it goes. It amounts to the redeployment of two companies of Coldstream Guards from Vitez—although that begs the question about the consequential effect on the situation in Vitez. The response also involves the additional deployment of 60 new troops who are specialists in mortar location.

General Rose specifically asked for an additional battalion, but that United Nations request has been refused by the Government. His aim was to avoid possible military escalation, particularly a necessity for air strikes when the deadline expires on Sunday evening. His request was the result of an assessment of need. There is still time for an adequate response, and we hope that the Minister will give an assurance that we will use the time before Sunday's deadline to pressurise our allies, including the United States, for additional contributions.

Mr. Colvin

Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to correct one misunderstanding that prevails at present? Although General Rose is British, he is not the British Commander, he is a NATO-United Nations commander. Some 7,600 troops from other United Nations and NATO partners are ready to be deployed in Bosnia. It is time that other countries did more to take part in this operation, rather than leaving it to the British and French.

Mr. Anderson

Certainly, the British and French contributions are substantial. I can confirm that, although General Rose is a British national, he is acting as the United Nations commander in Bosnia. We should view his assessment of the need with great respect. History will judge us badly if, because of our over-cautious response now, there is an escalation of warfare in Bosnia and the window of opportunity afforded by the ceasefire is lost. That is as much as I wish to say about Bosnia.

To obtain a clear idea of the scale of the recent changes, which have fundamentally altered the role of our Royal Navy, I invite my parliamentary colleagues to read the three previous debates on the Royal Navy, especially the debate held four years ago this month in February 1990. That shows exactly how the world has changed over the past four years.

In February 1990, the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), the Under-Secretary at the time, opened the debate. His speech referred inter alia to President Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, the fact that HMS Achilles had visited Rostock in East Germany, the submarine capability of the Soviet Union and its ability to mount a surprise attack against the NATO countries in Europe. He said that the Soviet Union was continuing to invest heavily in modernising its armed forces. He gave as the Royal Navy's primary NATO role its anti-submarine warfare capability. He said that the primary potential threat remained that posed by the Soviet submarine fleet.

Today, we are in a different world. However, there is one aspect of that speech four years ago that I invite hon. Members to hear. The Under-Secretary said: Our force of destroyers and frigates stands at 48 vessels, of which 44 are available for operations immediately or within a short period. We remain committed to a force of about 50 and we plan to order sufficient ships to meet that commitment."—[Official Report, 5 February 1990; Vol. 166, c. 657.] Since then, as we say in this House, an amendment has been tabled. There is a United States saying that a promise is something to run on, not to stand on.

The current figure for frigates and destroyers is about 35. We must add to that the current defence share of gross domestic product of 3.7 per cent.—in 1984–85, it was 5.3 per cent. It has been projected by the Treasury that it will fall to 3.24 per cent. in 1995–96, and by defence experts that it will fall to 2.9 per cent. by 1999–2000. That is a sign of the financial pressures facing the forces as a whole.

Mr. Hanley

I seem to remember that, at the Labour party conference in October, some 79.9 per cent. of members voted—I believe that that makes it official party policy—to reduce the defence expenditure of the United Kingdom to the European average, which is about 2.4 per cent. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is saying that, whatever the pressures on our defence budget and, indeed, whatever the reassessment caused by the changing world order and the fact that we do not have anyone threatening to attack our shores any more, the Labour party would do even more to reduce our defence expenditure and, therefore, run riot with defence industries, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

Mr. Anderson

I was expecting that intervention. I assume that it will be followed by a question as to whether I was ever a member of the CND.

Clearly, we need to look not at conference resolutions but at the Labour party's manifesto at the last election, which I happen to have with me. In that manifesto—£I hope that the Minister will regard this with the same care as he reads conference resolutions—we said: We will provide whatever resources are needed for effective defence for our country, providing the necessary level of forces with the appropriate equipment and weapons. We do not need to consider Government resolutions as we can consider their actions. Their figures are Treasury-led and not strategy-led and have fallen rapidly.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)

As a keen observer of Labour party conferences, I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with his cavalier and dismissive words about conference resolutions. Will he confirm that conference resolutions that are passed by a majority of two thirds or more are binding on the Labour party? In the example mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, the resolution to reduce our defence spending by one third—equivalent to wiping out spending on the navy—was passed by a 79 per cent. majority.

Mr. Anderson

I confirm that Labour policy is that which appears in its election manifesto. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is eagerly awaiting the manifesto that will win the Labour party the election in three years' time. Our actions in response to that manifesto will be more credible and honest than the Government's actions, as I showed when I compared the Government's promises four years ago and the actuality today.

Mr. Colvin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Anderson

The hon. Gentleman has had one go and I suspect that his intervention will follow in the vein of other rather silly interventions.

Mr. Colvin

I was going to say that the Liberals are not here.

Mr. Anderson

The Liberals could speak for themselves if they were here.

The key complications in the Royal Navy are the long research and development times and the expected length of service of new ships. A good example of that problem is the history of the Upholder class submarine, the design contract for which was placed in May 1980. In November 1983, the build contract for the first of class was placed with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. The contracts for the remaining three boats were placed in 1986. Hon. Members will know of the history of cost overruns, but all four boats did finally, and very recently, go into service.

The "Options for Change" White Paper, which appeared in July 1990, stated that only four boats would be built in that class, yet in July last year the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" announced that the Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw Upholders from service by 1995 and were taking steps to dispose of them, after a total spend of £910 million, claiming that there would be savings in running costs of £25 million to £30 million per annum.

In a note for the Public Accounts Committee in October last year, the MOD claimed that a number of potential markets for the Upholder class boats had been identified. Last month, however, a Ministry source was quoted as saying that no country had come forward with a realistic offer and that, when taken out of the service next year, the four boats would "rust away". Will the Minister confirm that there is no realistic prospect of orders, that almost £1 billion has effectively been wasted and that total savings in running costs amount to £25 million to £30 million per annum?

It is clear that the financial reasons that led to the Upholder decision last year were regretted by many people in the Royal Navy. They recognised its role in the training of captains and crew who go on to larger vessels and with our special forces. They also believe that it would be more likely to be used in the future operations that we envisage.

There is clearly a close correlation between morale in the Navy and the retention of such vessels. I am reliably informed that the premature voluntary retirement rate shot up among Upholder personnel immediately after the decision was announced. The Upholder decision and other examples of cost cutting, such as the helicopter carrier, should encourage a little caution and humility among Conservative Members who demand to know how much we would spend on defence and our priorities. They expect us to produce fully worked-out operational plans three years before we take power and when we are consistently denied access to data because of the unnecessary and foolish cult of secrecy in the MOD.

Mr. Hanley

Things have never been more open.

Mr. Anderson

I refer the Minister to the fact the Opposition Front-Bench team has still not been provided with a copy of the semi-public speech on the RAF by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon to an audience that included a number of Conservative Members. We have sought to obtain a copy of that speech, but without success.

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the speech was made at a private function. It is therefore not available for the Government to issue it. On openness, last year's Government White Paper set out its proposals in more detail than ever before—some people, including members of the Labour party's Front-Bench team, said that they were surprised by the openness of the document and the extra details that it contained. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman cannot say that we are not open with our information. Will he confirm that this very week he and his Front-Bench team were afforded a full briefing on the Army? That briefing was one of a series that demonstrates the openness of which the MOD and the Government are proud.

Mr. Anderson

Of course we welcome the briefing: And e'en the ranks of Tuscany Could scarce forbear to cheer. It marked a welcome breakthrough. I repeat, however, that the air chief marshal's speech was made to a semi-public body and that when we asked for a copy of that speech, we were referred to the office of the Secretary of State for Defence. We have still not been supplied with one.

The Minister mentioned the new openness. Will he assure the House that the interim reports and the final report on the "Front Line First" study will be made available to the House? What impact will that study have on long-term costings?

There is a substantial contrast between the Government's rhetoric and the reality. That contrast is the reason why many people in the defence community are disillusioned with the Government and the reason for the recent MORI finding that, on defence matters, the public trust Labour more than the Conservatives. That is a matter of record.

Clearly, the changes in the security context have led to pressures for changes in NATO and to a rethink on defence priorities in all countries, not least the United Kingdom. The "Options for Change" statement of July 1990 has been further refined, if that is the word, in the light of Treasury pressures. NATO is in a transition phase. It is instructive to read the Brussels summit communiqué of January this year, which placed a new emphasis on the build-up of the European pillar in defence—the European defence identity and the common foreign and security policy outlined in the Maastricht treaty.

Increasingly, the United States is reassessing its role in Europe, prompted by a number of pressures, not least financial. For example, on the 7 February of this year, President Clinton presented his 1995 budget to Congress. It amounted to a strategy of global withdrawal and a major reduction in the defence share of Government expenditure. In the United States, the share of gross domestic product that is allocated to defence will fall to 13 per cent. by 1999—a third of the share during the cold war and the lowest share since the isolationist 1930s. In the 1990s, the share amounted to as much as 40 per cent. of the federal budget. Britain and Europe must respond to changed United States policy perceptions.

Those who claim that the special relationship continues do so with much less credibility. They are not helped by the Conservative party's assistance to the Bush candidacy during the last presidential campaign, which posed major problems for our embassy in Washington because the Washington bureaucracy is so highly politicised. Despite having a remarkably expert ambassador in Sir Robin Renwick, we face a wall of problems as a result of the Conservative party's foolish partisan intervention in the campaign. I remind Government Members that the United Kingdom's concession last week to the allies over air strikes in Bosnia arose in part because of the fear that inaction would excite the pressures of isolationists within the United States.

The link between our defence policy overall and European Union developments is as yet uncertain, but the trend is likely to be an increased United States disengagement, coupled with a strengthening of European Union cohesion.

The Royal Navy is vitally affected by our perception of the changes in the nature of the threat, and our response to that threat. The old and clear role of anti-submarine warfare in the gap between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom has now gone, and a new role is being worked out with a much wider definition of security. The United States marine corps White Papers have spoken of a change from a focus on global threat to a focus on regional challenges". A United States naval strategist has talked of new threats from zealots, crazies, drug runners and terrorists while another warns of the growing wealth of petro-nations—available to bullies and crazies". It is instructive to see the Government's response in that context. The Government have argued that the "Options" statement was "strategy-led, not resource-disciplined", but virtually everyone outside the ranks of Ministers accepts that it is resource-led and strategy-disciplined. That makes it essentially a cost-cutting exercise.

The versatility of the Navy is vital for poise over the horizon and inshore for political and military objectives. There is the flexibility of deployment without the necessity of support from the countries involved. For example, Harriers can go up in any weather, and carriers can travel 400 miles in 24 hours. There is an increasing role for the Navy in support of the civil powers, such as in disasters, drug matters and the defence of small states. That is a particular Commonwealth role, and one thinks of Grenada and the debate over the defence of micro-states within the Commonwealth. That debate began in the 1980s and, alas, has not reached a conclusion.

Clearly, the Royal Navy has special advantages in the new circumstances because of its versatility. At the time of the Falklands crisis, SSN craft were the first to the area, and one SSN spent over 100 days unsupported at sea.

The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) mentioned that there is a widespread distribution of submarines nowadays. There are 376 conventional submarines in 44 countries around the world, 222 of which belong to 30 third-world countries. More than 3,000 advanced Exocets have been obtained by 29 countries.

How has the Royal Navy been able to move from the old to the new? Are the resources available? Hon. Members will know the three "defence roles" set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" and I shall not repeat them. The total force elements which were assigned to various defence roles were set out clearly, and it is accepted by the Government that there is much double counting.

The total of the fleet remains at four ballistic missile nuclear submarines or SSBNs, 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs, three carriers, 35 destroyers and frigates, eight amphibious ships, 25 mine counter-measures vessels, or MCMV, and 16 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.

The Government will be aware that there are major concerns within the defence community about fitting the forces to the defence roles. Those concerns include our amphibious capability, where there is a shortfall which makes it vital to proceed with work on the two landing platform docks to replace Fearless and Intrepid. The helicopter carrier decision was much welcomed.

As far as aircraft carriers are concerned, the follow-on to the three carriers which require replacement between 2009 and 2016 must be considered. That is roughly the same time as the Sea Harrier is due to be replaced, but nothing is as yet planned.

Since there is no prospect of our ordering big carriers, we may eventually have to convert to helicopter carriers. No other aircraft will be available, unless the next generation of Sea Harriers is ready by that time. The European fighter aircraft cannot fit on to our small carriers. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are considering the next generation of Sea Harriers in their long-term costings?

I will just say in passing that France has similar problems in relation to its carrier fleet. France has two major, but aging, carriers—the Clemenceau and the Foch, which came into service in the early 1960s. There was a cry of anguish in the early February issue of Cols Bleus from Admiral Coatane, the French chief of naval staff, who regretted the many delays in the Charles de Gaulle. Admiral Coatane hoped that a second carrier would enter into service some years after. It was anticipated that the Charles de Gaulle nuclear carrier would be completed five years ago, but France is now saying that it will be completed—at the very earliest—in 1999.

It is sad that France has such a nationalist procurement policy. The Sea Harrier was appropriate for the French carriers, but it was not ordered. France is, of course, ordering the Rafale for the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle.

The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" suggested that only 24 destroyers and frigates would be required for fully active service, while other ship numbers will be at a reduced level. Is it the intention of the Government to withdraw the type 22 frigates speedily? Clearly, the lower complement of the type 23–175 crew, as against 250 on the type 22—is important.

Will the new type 23 be ordered at the expense of the common new generation frigates being jointly developed by the United Kingdom, France and Italy? One assumes that such joint procurement of expensive projects will be increasingly necessary. Yarrow claims that further delays in the common new generation frigates could mean the United Kingdom losing its present frigate-designing skills. I understand that the two United Kingdom consortiums involved—Yarrow and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd.—still have not heard which has been awarded the contract, whereas the key manufacturers in the other participating countries have been selected.

It would be helpful to know the current state of thinking of the Royal Navy on joining in the developments of the conventionally armed stand-off missile, or CASOM, which has a range of over 1,000 km. That would be a major increment in the power-projection of Royal Navy frigates.

As to nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, is there a clear commitment to begin the construction of the first batch 2T class submarines at Barrow when the Trident vessels are completed? As always in industrial matters, we need to retain our expertise. Trident has now been given a sub-strategic role, following the Secretary of State's announcement on 4 October last year during the House's debate on the defence estimates for 1993. That sub-strategic role has caused concern by doubling the number of potential nuclear warheads to 96 on each Trident submarine from 48 on each Polaris. In our judgment, warheads, not explosive power, are the key factor. That role is also a blow to those who seek to discourage nuclear proliferation. It is clearly an unfortunate signal to countries that are developing their own nuclear capacity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) will say more about mine counter-measures vessels. There is clearly an urgent need to order the next batch of Sandowns, which are very much valued in multi-national operations. I shall dwell a little on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary—the point raised by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). It is necessary to use ships taken up from trade to supplement the existing tankers and replenishment ships to meet the total requirement under defence role 2. There is much scepticism in defence circles about the number of seamen listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", because the figures given were swollen by including foreign seamen in British ships and even trainees still at school.

I refer the Minister to the excellent report by the House of Commons Employment Select Committee entitled "The Future of Maritime Skills and Employment in the United Kingdom", which was published on 2 November last year. It shows an alarming decline in seamen and ships arising in particular from a lack of Government support for the industry. I refer the Minister to the fifth and 10th recommendations in that report, which are very pertinent to the capacity of the Navy to respond in emergencies.

I remind the Minister that, during the Gulf war, the Government were required to charter ships at exorbitant rates. They chartered 127 foreign flag vessels at a cost of £180 million. The peace-time equivalent cost was estimated at £85 million. The key question is whether the Government recognise the need for a core fleet of militarily useful merchant vessels. If so, are they prepared to give fiscal and other incentives to achieve that before it is too late? The position will certainly have deteriorated even since the report of the Select Committee was published in November last year.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I ask this question in support of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Is it not also the case that the recently retired First Sea Lord has spelt out clearly in a meeting of the parliamentary maritime group his real anxieties on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises? I find it difficult to accept the view of Government Front-Bench Members that all is well and there is not a problem.

Mr. Anderson

Government Front-Bench Members continue to repeat that all is well as our merchant marine sinks beyond the horizon. We must treat with considerable respect the views of people with such long experience as the former First Sea Lord. I urge the Government to take the problem seriously and ask themselves whether we in Britain need a core merchant capacity and, if so, what we are prepared to do about it.

It is clear that ship ordering has vital industrial and regional consequences. I need cite only two examples. One is the success of Vickers in bidding over Swan Hunter for the construction work, valued at £211 million, for the helicopter carrier. That led to the collapse of Swan Hunter and the loss of thousands of jobs on Tyneside.

The second example is the contest between the two royal dockyards, Rosyth and Devonport, which led to the £5 billion Trident refit contract being awarded to Devonport and the consequent pledge by the Secretary of State that Rosyth, by way of compensation, would be guaranteed refitting work on more than half the fleet for 12 years.

The Minister will be aware that fears are now widespread that the Government could be forced to reverse that decision because the Treasury has demanded even greater cuts. The results of the defence costs study, which I understand will be completed towards the end of next month but published in April or May, are awaited with great trepidation in Rosyth, which employs 3,700 people. There is great anxiety that the pledge given only last November will not be met.

It is said that the cuts envisaged in the defence costs study will go well beyond those envisaged in "Options for Change". The Treasury has given officials the target of saving £750 million in each year from 1996–97. Is it still considered feasible to maintain two yards with the reduction of the destroyer-frigate force to 35?

As for naval helicopters, the Government are presumably watching with some concern the hostile takeover bid by GKN for the Westland group, made on 8 February. It is claimed that British Aerospace, which had an interest in Westland, an independent producer, at an earlier stage, was warned off by the Ministry of Defence.

Perhaps the Minister could comment on that and on what role, if any, the Government are playing. It is certain that helicopters will play an increasing role in the regional warfare of the future, in which equipment for rapid response is needed. The highly versatile EH101 Merlin will obviously benefit the Royal Navy. That point was made earlier by the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle).

I shall conclude by discussing some of the human factors in the Royal Navy. Our capacity as a naval power clearly depends on motivating our sailors at a time of reduction and restructuring in the new strategic context. If we compare Royal Navy pay scales for 1978 with those in 1994 in real terms, we see that, although salaries for the higher ranks have risen by between 15 and 18 per cent., the salaries for the lower ranks have decreased in real terms by 13.7 per cent.

There are other key anxieties about the conditions for the men and women in our Royal Navy. One is that the conditions of overstretch lead to personnel spending increasing time at sea away from families. The possibility of spending time ashore has been made more difficult by the Government's programme of contractorisation. Men previously expected to spend some time in jobs at home. Those jobs may no longer exist as a result of contractorisation.

The shore-sea ratio is of considerable importance to morale. It has regional variations. The danger is that, in the ideological pursuit of privatisation, the Government could harm our Navy. Similarly, "Front Line First" will involve a trade-off with morale as shore time is likely to be further limited not only as a result of contractorisation but as a result of the likely conclusions of the "Front Line First" study.

As for housing, the Royal Navy clearly was not consulted about the decision to sell off the stock of housing. The ensuing housing association would be the largest in Britain, with major problems in relations with local housing authorities, tenant participation in the giant authority that will emerge and management structure. It is clear that many of those problems have not been thought through. Again, the decision was motivated by a once-for-all saving of £500 million and a desire to avoid Treasury demand for further cuts.

Will the Minister ensure that the findings of the independent survey of the married quarters estate are published? What is he doing to ensure that cheap rented accommodation is available to service families who want it when they leave Ministry of Defence property? There was a helpful Rowntree report on that a year or so ago.

In conclusion, in spite of the reductions and changes over a short period, our officers, men and women in the Royal Navy remain remarkably cheerful and resilient. By a neat recasting of the defence needs and juggling within the categories, the Govenrment have given an appearance of producing a highly flexible and well-motivated force. The new military traits of mobility, flexibility and inter-operability in a highly uncertain world would make the tasks of our Royal Navy even more vital. Further cuts, which will undoubtedly be justified yet again on strategic grounds, as the shadow of the Treasury looms over the Ministry of Defence, will risk endangering the current state of morale and readiness of our forces.

Having read the speech on defence capabilities that the Secretary of State gave to the Centre for Defence Studies on Tuesday, I cannot help wondering how much the Government are clinging to an expensively structured role of anti-submarine warfare from an earlier period when there was a very different threat. Should there be more emphasis on power projection, with the anti-submarine capability being ancillary to that?

The Government's attempts to meet so many commitments are a means of avoiding choices between a continental or maritime future and between specialisation or collaboration with our allies. We may want to stay in the business of a major warfare capacity, but is there not a danger of us ending up with units that are too small for the tasks demanded of them? The time of choice is fast approaching as the cost of systems and commitments continue to rise and budget constraints become even more onerous.

How long will current plans last after "Options for Change" and the current review? Over the next six years we shall approach the time when, it is estimated, defence expenditure will be only 2.9 per cent. of gross domestic product. The moment of choice cannot be long delayed.

5.42 pm
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

I join my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) in paying tribute to the Royal Navy, not only for what it did for us 50 years ago, but for the way in which this country's safety, independence and freedoms have been guaranteed for the past 500 years by the way in which the Navy has defended our shores and overseas interests. It would be a fundamental error for anyone to imagine that the importance of the Royal Navy is less today than it has been during the past 500 years.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the role played by the Royal Navy can be summarised in three categories. First, it represents our interests abroad, and looks after our trading interests and prestige abroad in peace time and in limited warfare. Secondly, it provides the naval contingent of any force that we give to the United Nations, the Western European Union or our allies if we are called upon to do so. Thirdly, and ultimately most importantly, it safeguards this country and its security in times of all-out war. I shall follow my hon. Friend the Minister of State in exploring the way in which the Royal Navy is able to fulfil those tasks, and its capability to do so properly.

I welcomed my hon. Friend's comments about the way in which our ships sail around the world and represent us. In Russia, South Africa, the far east and the West Indies, our ships represent us and show the white ensign in foreign ports. They enormously enhance this country's prestige and its ability to trade internationally.

I was puzzled by my hon. Friend's precise comments on the current and future role of our ships on the West Indian station. He rightly paid tribute to the way in which that ship has contributed to the anti-drug smuggling exercise and the way in which it has supported our troops, who, sadly, have now withdrawn from Belize. He mentioned the invaluable task that it has carried out in representing our interests in that part of the world.

My hon. Friend said that the ship and its posting was under review. In almost the same breath he said that he thought it was extremely important that we should continue to have a ship in that part of the world. If that is true, I very much hope that it will not be necessary to review the position for long. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies to the debate, I look forward to an assurance from him that there is no plan to withdraw the West Indies guard ship.

During the last debate on the Navy I spoke of piracy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, was less than sympathetic to the view that we should be able and prepared to play a role in defending the merchant fleet and shipping routes, particularly in the far east, against the dangers of piracy. I hope to receive a more positive response today.

There were 100 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in 1992, 80 per cent. of which were in far eastern waters and some of which involved British ships. I am sure that the House will recall the tragic and appalling murder of Captain Bashforth and his chief officer in December 1992, when their ship was boarded.

Such incidents cannot be allowed to continue, but they are growing in number and there is a substantial risk that they will spread. Indeed, such incidents are spreading—from the South China sea to the Hong Kong-Luzon-Hainan triangle. In 1993 there were several sophisticated attacks on ships in those waters when hand grenades and machine guns were used. It is a problem that Her Majesty's Government should take seriously. The Royal Navy should play a positive role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations to ensure that, in those waters, both our ships and those of other countries are safe.

The merchant fleet is vital to this country. The hon. Member for Swansea, East touched on its importance and capability, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin). Our capability to carry out, if necessary, another Falklands-style campaign was also mentioned. The Government have assured the House that they are confident that we would be able to do so by hiring foreign-flag ships if necessary. I, like the Select Committee and most of those in the Royal Navy to whom I have talked, do not share that confidence.

I know that Treasury Ministers have been asked by the British Chamber of Shipping—supported in high places—to undertake a specific test of our ability to run a Falklands-style campaign. They want a day to be picked at random during the coming year and an official exercise to be carried out to see whether there are ships available to enable us to carry out such an operation. I understand that that request has been turned down flat by Ministers.

I can think of only two reasons for the refusal. First, we can be assured that such ships are available, so the test is unnecessary. But I am afraid that I have seen no such proof and am deeply sceptical about the availability of such ships in some circumstances. The second reason could be that Ministers are frightened that such an exercise would show that we could not carry out a Falklands-style campaign. It would therefore be necessary for the Ministry of Defence to spend more money on, and give greater support to, the merchant fleet than it is currently prepared to do.

Mr. Ottaway

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has read General de la Billiere's book, "Storm Command" on the deployment of ships during the Gulf war. He said that about 146 ships were chartered to ship goods to the Gulf, of which only three flew the United Kingdom flag. That shows that 143 foreign vessels were chartered for that exercise. That shows that such ships are available.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

My hon. Friend says that the ships are available. I could enter a prolonged debate on the circumstances in which they might not be available. Foreign-flag ships would not be available in two circumstances. First, they would not be available if the country where they are flagged out did not support the United Kingdom in the exercise being undertaken and would not permit its ships to be used. I think that India withdrew and refused its ships to be used for that reason.

Secondly, ships might not be available if their crews decided that they were not prepared to serve because of the high-risk nature of the operation. Neither the Falklands exercise nor the Gulf exercise was of very high risk to our ships—although, in the former case, we were extraordinarily lucky. Neither case contained such an element of risk that foreign crews refused to serve on safety grounds, but I can easily envisage different circumstances in which they might. Therefore, although the required number of ships exist, their availability must be called into question.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

Given the hon. Gentleman's experience of defence matters, he will be aware that much of the Falklands campaign was fought with a flotilla of ships, many of which were adapted at the Devonport dockyard in my constituency. Does he accept that such a campaign would no longer be possible because the rundown in the Devonport dockyard since the early 1980s means that we do not have the civilian expertise in the dockyard to carry it out?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I accept that it would now be substantially more difficult to find the expertise in British dockyards generally than it was 12 years ago because we have fewer dockyards and fewer dockyard workers. That is another aspect of our eroding defence capability that could lead to danger.

The most obvious and topical example of the support given to the United Nations is the current role of the Royal Navy in the Adriatic. The Defence Select Committee hopes to visit our forces in the Adriatic and in Croatia in a fortnight's time. I hope that the activities of certain members of the Opposition Front Bench will not prevent us from doing so and that the usual party system will re-establish itself so that my Labour colleagues on the Defence Select Committee can travel in a way that they are currently blocked from doing.

If we manage to make that trip, there is a great deal that we shall wish to see. It is important for the House that, at such critical times, the Defence Select Committee, in particular, manages to see exactly what is happening in the areas where our troops, sailors and airmen may find themselves in danger. I should regret it were we to be balked in our attempts to do so. I hope that we shall be able to reassure ourselves on two matters: first, on the command system; and, secondly, on the availability and suitability of the aircraft currently in that station on Ark Royal.

I welcome the Government's decision to order more FRS-2 standard Harriers, which are good all-purpose aircraft. I am not clear about how many currently on station are equipped with the Tiald equipment necessary for targeting and reconnaissance. I should welcome anything that my hon. Friend can tell me about that, and any reassurance that he can give me. Will the weapons on those aircraft and on Jaguar enable the Sea Harriers and Jaguars that we have available in the Gulf to play a full role in whatever may be necessary should the United Nations decide to carry out the air strikes that are currently threatened against the gun positions?

The House should also take account of the fact that the operations in the Adriatic have caused much difficulty in the Royal Navy in terms of the commitment of our available ships there and elsewhere. It is remarkable that half of the 14 type 22 frigates have already served there, and that half of the 12 T-42 destroyers have served there, at least one of them twice. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary has done magnificent service in the Adriatic and the Olwen has not been relieved since the Ark Royal group sailed there over a year ago.

Those details show the extent to which the Royal Navy is fully stretched, or possibly over-stretched, by our present commitments. When so many of our ships are involved in one task, it must eat into their availability to carry out the other tasks that I mentioned earlier, represent our interests across a broad front and appear round the world to show the presence of Great Britain and its interests.

Another aspect of the Adriatic operation that needs attention from the House, which the hon. Member for Swansea, East touched on, is the question of the Upholder submarine fleet. The Upholder submarine is admirably suited to operations in shallow seas. Diesel submarines are much better than nuclear submarines in shore, in operations used in covert landing, and in shadowing other submarines in shallow waters.

If we need any submarines in our present operations, we need the Upholder, yet that fleet is about to be scrapped, mothballed, or sold. It is new, extremely expensive and, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East said, we have been going ahead with it at great expense, even after the "Options for Change" proposals of 1990.

Mr. Donald Anderson

May I commend to the hon. Gentleman broadsheet 92 of the Royal Navy magazine, in which Lieutenant Commander Peter Hinchliffe, commanding officer of HMS Ursula, gives a great hymn of praise to the Upholders' capabilities? That would have been published in January 1993, shortly before the decision to abolish the class altogether.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Personally, however, I doubt whether the removal of the Upholder submarine from our armoury results from a change in strategic assessment. I fear that it is led by a shortage in the funds available to my hon. Friends, who have made a difficult decision which is hard to justify in defence terms. I hope that my hon. Friends will note the value of those boats and the use to which they can be put, and review their decision to lose Upholder. Even if that means that some other part of our defence capability must, sadly, be reviewed, we need to keep those boats and should certainly not allow them to be sold to foreign flags.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend comment on another aspect of that strange decision? Are not many countries enhancing their conventional submarine capability, not least the Iranians with the purchase of Soviet boats? Has not the United Kingdom traditionally been a strong exporter of submarines and submarine-related systems? Is it not poor economics for us to prejudice our position in that market and leave it increasingly open to our competitors, such as the Germans, French, Dutch and Swedes?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Those are all good and valid points. Indeed, I would go further on the purchase of submarines by other nations. Even more dangerous than Iran is the situation in Korea. Hon. Members will have noticed the growing interest expressed in the British press about what is happening in Korea and the growing public awareness of the grave danger that North Korea might be about to embark on another foolish exercise, such as it did in the early 1950s, and invade South Korea. It is not a paper threat but a real possibility.

North Korea has just bought a further 24 or more SSKs from the Russians and has an enormous submarine fleet. The Korean waters are shallow and ideally suited to diesel-driven submarines. Should North Korea invade South Korea, I have no doubt whatever—I have good grounds for saying so—that our American allies would look to us for support. I am not sure what support we would give them. I do not know whether the Government have assessed what we could or should give them in the event of being called on to produce something useful for our allies.

I suggest that the Upholder submarines and our mine-clearing vessels would be two ways in which we could enhance the United States' ability to resist a Korean invasion. Both those vessels would be admirably suited to a United Kingdom contribution to the war which I fear may come within the next two years.

I welcome the addition of the landing platform helicopter. That was quite a battle. It replaces Hermes, which we lost in 1983, so I regret that we have already gone for a long time without an LPH. I also regret that its capability has been cut from 800 to 500. In a good article, Colonel Southby-Tailour, an experienced marine officer, set out in graphic detail why that cut is deeply damaging. He pointed out that, although the new vessel is designed to carry 500 people in normal circumstances, it is intrinsic to its design that it will also have a 300 overstretch capability.

That means that 300 more men will be crammed on to a ship designed for 500 men. The conditions in which they would be expected to live, tough though marines are, would put them under grave pressure. They would not be able to inhabit the LPH for long sustained periods, in the Adriatic, for example, where we might want to put troops into a vessel and hold them in readiness offshore. Although the LPH will bring unwelcome restrictions in the numbers she can carry, I welcome her addition to the fleet.

I am worried by a rumour—I know not who started it—that, because we have the LPH, we may not have the full complement of three aircraft carriers, and that the first aircraft carrier to come out of service will not be replaced. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will reassure me that there is absolutely no foundation whatsoever in that rumour and that the LPH will be in addition to and not in substitution for an aircraft carrier, which carries out an entirely different purpose.

As many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, I shall summarise my remaining remarks. The ultimate role of the Royal Navy is to keep our seas open in times of war. Neither I nor the Select Committee believes that the fleet that we now operate is capable of carrying out that task or of playing its full role in a NATO attempt to carry out that task. I look with particular concern at the rundown in the number of SSNs and the fact that we now have only about 35 frigates, not all of which will be on station where they are needed should war break out.

It would be very foolish for the Government to assume that, because Mr. Yeltsin is sympathetic to the west, Russia is now safe and that there is no potential threat from Russia or the Russian Federation and a group of her allies against Britain or NATO in the near future.

Mr. Yeltsin is not safe and events in Bosnia make his position less safe. As violence in Bosnia escalates, Mr. Yeltsin will face increasing pressure from the Duma and from his Conservative opponents for co-operating with us and not supporting Serbia wholeheartedly. If we get what the Russians laughably call a Conservative Government, by which they mean a Communist reactionary Government, or a return to a socialist Government in Russia, it would not take very long for the Russian forces, notwithstanding the recent rundown, to be re-established.

There are now moves in Russia, even under Mr. Yeltsin, to reunite with the Crimea and Byelorussia. There are strong elements in Russia that want the Ukraine back as a single unit within the Russian Federation. If they achieve that and move into the Baltic states, we will face the core of the old Soviet Union, in so far as it represented power, very little diminished in size or strength as a result of that reamalgamation.

We must look to the long-term future with the possibility that we shall still need a strong, united NATO and a British contributory force in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force capable of carrying out a role in an all-out war against us. It is the finding of the Defence Select Committee that our Navy is not strong enough properly to fulfil such a role.

6.4 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). May I take the opportunity to congratulate the Defence Select Committee on its work and on many of the good reports that it has produced?

No doubt the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be pleased to know that I shall concentrate on "Front Line First", the fancy title of the defence costs study. Once again, the Royal Navy is experiencing the impact of a Treasury-led defence policy. As the Defence Select Committee said in its report on the Royal Navy published last September, we are still awaiting the publication of the future size and shape of the Royal Navy. While we wait, we see the fleet shrinking, along with support services and the civilian and naval personnel employed.

As the Defence Select Committee said, the Government's policy seems to be leading not to extended readiness but to diminished readiness. Rosyth naval base is certainly being diminished; it considers itself to be in the front line for the Treasury guns which are poised to blast it into complete non-existence. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I intend to concentrate my remarks on Rosyth naval base, although they also have a wider relevance.

I begin by emphasising why I believe Rosyth naval base is in the front line for closure; then I shall argue why Rosyth should continue as part of Britain's front-line capability.

The first reason why Rosyth is lined up for closure is the reduction in the surface fleet. That affects the entire Royal Navy and concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about it. There are, of course, constant promises from Ministers about the replacement of that fleet, but a fog always descends when we try to pin Ministers down about the timetable, size and detail of that replacement.

According to the 1993 defence estimates, there were 29 vessels at Rosyth. Of those 29, three were engaged in trials or training, so 26 were active or within imminent capability. Today, there are only 11 active or ready vessels at Rosyth—hardly a secure number for a naval base.

The second reason why Rosyth's future seems insecure is the continuing effect of "Options for Change" which, back in 1991, nearly led to Rosyth's closure.

Rosyth has experienced a drastic loss of jobs as well as a reduction in the surface fleet. By 1995, it will have lost 1,100 civilian jobs and 2,900 service personnel. Most recently, there have been rumours about senior officers retiring and not being replaced.

Only this week I received another noticeboard letter from the Ministry of Defence. I do not know how other hon. Members feel, but when I pick up a letter from the noticeboard with the Ministry of Defence symbol on it, my heart sinks. It sank again when I opened the letter this week to find that yet another 155 staff from Rosyth naval base are to go between September 1994 and March 1995.

Of course, I am assured by the Minister that the further reduction has nothing to do with the "Front Line First" initiative. I believe that just as much as I believe that it is too early to speculate on the future of Rosyth naval base. We were given similar information back in 1990–91, when there was a clear Ministry of Defence memorandum stating the Government's intention to close down the naval base at Rosyth.

As well as the reduction in the surface fleet and the number of personnel, Rosyth has seen a reduction in its role and functions. It is now a base for minor war vessels. Much of the work carried out by those vessels now seems insecure—for example, fisheries protection. As hon. Members know, fisheries protection is provided through contract between the MOD and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency. That contract ends next month. I have yet to hear anything about its renewal. Indeed, in a letter of November 1993, the Minister said that the current arrangements would be viewed in relation to the demands that they made on the defence budget.

I am sure that other hon. Members share my concerns about the wording. There is no guarantee that fishery protection work will continue to be carried out by the Royal Navy; we may see an end to it, as we have seen an end to what were once the regular patrols of offshore oil and gas installations.

A fourth reason why Rosyth thinks that it is in the front line and targeted for closure is the insecurity of other facilities nearby. Rosyth dockyard may have been promised allocated surface work, but the fleet reduction hardly makes that secure. Nor does the full-scale privatisation of the dockyard, which is, I believe, the Government distancing themselves from the future of Rosyth and Devonport dockyards. Also under threat is the national rescue co-ordination centre at Pitreavie, even though the decision to make it a national centre was announced only in July 1993—it is due to become fully operational at the end of this year.

Rosyth and the people of Fife, and indeed, Scotland, have learnt from bitter experience not to trust any promises or protestations from the Government. I have already mentioned the attempted closure of Rosyth naval base in 1991. At first, it was stated that no closure was planned. Then it was stated that all naval bases were being treated equally. Then we were told that the Scottish Office would be part of that decision-making. It was a diary of deceit and deception. We are now hearing similar statements. Is it any wonder that the people of Fife do not believe them?

Allow me to bring hon. Members up to date with the events of the past month. On 19 January, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) met the Minister for Defence Procurement to discuss Rosyth dockyard and naval base. No mention was made of the review that was announced the next day by the naval base commander. Why did the Minister say nothing to us at that time? Will he also comment on the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), who, like his predecessor, is calling for the closure of the naval base?

The Minister is saying that all bases are being treated equally. We have evidence that that is no more the case now than it was three years ago. At Rosyth, there is a failure to get information to straight questions and answers; three studies are taking place, not just one; and a questionnaire is being circulated at the moment asking personnel where they would like to go if the base closes. We know full well that a number of people in powerful positions, including those on the naval board, see Rosyth as expendable; as first in the front line of fire. Let me fire back on behalf of Rosyth, and argue why it should remain part of our front-line capability.

The first reason is strategy. One of the three main objectives set out in the defence estimates 1993 is to Ensure the protection and security of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories, even where there is no major external threat. Whatever else changes, Britain will remain an island nation with a coastline measuring 3,010 miles. It is argued that the loss of the only base on the north-east coast could seriously inhibit forward defence and rapid redeployment. It could go against the speed and protection of North sea interests and expose the seas around Norway. Rosyth's closure could also inhibit the protection of waters in the north Atlantic and the defence of convoys.

As hon. Members have already said, since the break-up of the Warsaw pact, arguably, we live in a more insecure and less predictable and less stable world. I listened this morning to the captain of HMS Ark Royal in the Adriatic, talking on the radio about its extended and constant readiness, waiting as the hours tick by for the news of whether it will be actively intervening in air strikes on Bosnia. There is no longer a nice neat line between us and them, between the enemies and the allies. The abandonment of Rosyth would leave the entire North sea coast, one side of the United Kingdom land triangle, exposed without a naval presence.

I shall now deal with the navy's peacetime role and mention again fishery protection, and along with it the anti-smuggling drug interdiction and environmental roles, which are played by the fleet. Rosyth provides an ideal and cost-effective training base for new commanders. It also provides invaluable assistance for an important Scottish industry—the fishing industry. I make particular mention of the Braer disaster off Shetland. While we all hope that that will never occur again, the fast forward reaction of the crews from Rosyth undoubtedly helped to control and contain the pollution, and saved lives in the horrendous conditions of a storm force 11. That speed and skill should not be lightly cast aside.

Like many other hon. Members, I believe that fishery protection and all that is associated with it provides an irreplaceable and invaluable training ground and should be maintained as a Navy function at Rosyth and elsewhere. Rosyth is within two hours of the training area for mine-sweepers—another point in its favour. The vessels maintain a United Kingdom presence in northern waters.

The closure of Rosyth would lead to the concentration of the United Kingdom's naval bases on less than 3 per cent. of the United Kingdom's total mainland coastline. There are strategic arguments against such a concentration. The closure of Rosyth would also lead to the costly loss of a centre of excellence for engineering, support and expertise, and mine-hunting navigational systems. For all those strategic reasons, Rosyth should be seen as part of our front line.

Recruitment and retention is another area in Rosyth's favour. Rosyth, Fife and Scotland have provided 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom's naval personnel. Its closure would lose a good number of people. It would lead to the loss of experienced men and to significant extra costs and duplication of facilities. There have been comments about morale being good. I can say to hon. Members that morale in the Rosyth area is at the depths; it is at rock bottom. It seems to me that no consideration is given by Ministers in the Ministry of Defence to the Navy's most precious asset—its people, who serve, who are loyal and are committed. I am thinking particularly of the people of Rosyth and the people of Scotland as a whole, who have served the defence of the realm over the centuries.

Let me quote not an admiral but a general—General Cromwell. He put it very plainly when he said: I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a 'gentleman' and is nothing else. The men and women of Rosyth know what they fight for, and they have already made their commitment clear. Rosyth has saved the Ministry of Defence millions of pounds already; it is the most-studied naval base in the country, and it has proved its cost-effectiveness. Savings of 40 per cent. in overall running costs have been achieved since "Options for Change". Land sale receipts are bringing in more than the original estimates, and the commitment continues to increase savings each year.

I believe that the minor war vessels base at Rosyth is cost-efficient and cost-effective. Its closure would cost the Treasury more than it would save.

I need tell no hon. Member of the vital importance of such bases to the local economy. Indeed, during the last battle over Rosyth's future, the Prime Minister acknowledged Rosyth's importance to Fife's economy. In answer to a question, the Prime Minister said: No decision has been made to close Rosyth or any other naval base. We fully recognise the implications that closure would have for employment in the area. Those implications would be fully considered and examined before any such decision was taken."—[Official Report, 5 February 1991; Vol. 185, c. 159.] I hope that that is still the case. The role of the base in providing employment is even more vital following the job losses that have resulted, over the past three years, from the rundown of the base and the reduction of the dockyard. As hon. Members will know, those job losses will continue.

Even with the reductions that I have mentioned, 5,000 jobs are still related to the base; however, its closure would lead to a rise in unemployment to a rate of between 20 and 30 per cent. in an area that now has the highest unemployment level in Scotland. It would also dig a £96 million hole in the local economy. Service and civilian personnel spend a large portion of their money on local goods, services and businesses; 250 companies in Fife would lose business if the base closed—82 per cent. of them small businesses. Some would collapse, leading to a loss of revenue for the Government. Skills would also be lost—skills whose availability is a major attraction for possible alternative industries. Twenty-five per cent. of the work force at the base have been there for more than 20 years; they are not at all confident about finding new employment.

The Treasury is kidding itself if it thinks that closures of this kind will save money. If Rosyth is closed, the Treasury will incur costs in the form of unemployment and other benefits, and the loss of tax and national insurance revenue. If the amount per person is £9,000 a year, the Treasury will lose £45 million annually.

Let me ask the Minister some questions. Will the MOD release terms of reference for the studies of minor war vessel base porting that are being carried out at Rosyth, Plymouth and Portsmouth? What, to date, has been the cost to the Government of the task change at Rosyth, in terms of redundancies, associated costs for civilians and costs associated with the transfer of naval personnel? Can the MOD provide an update on the annual savings anticipated from the change in task, over five years? Will the Government confirm that the social and economic implications of changes at Rosyth will be taken fully into account now as they were in 1991? Does the Minister agree that Rosyth retains strategic importance as a minor war vessel base?

At the beginning of my speech, I referred to "Front Line First". I hope that I have explained why the people of Rosyth, Fife and Scotland as a whole feel that they are in the front line—being fired on. Since 1990, we have lived with uncertainty hanging over the naval base, the dockyard and now, again, the naval base. Rosyth has been plagued by rumour, counter-rumour, reversed decisions and broken promises.

We will not stand by and watch the closure of Scotland's only surface vessel base, and Britain's only north-east coast base. The people who are based at Rosyth have served the country for nearly a century: they, and the surrounding communities, are only too well aware of the power of the sea and the price that it demands, and they know what it means to be in the front line in times of both peace and war.

Let me end by reminding the Minister of Sir Winston Churchill's words on 11 October 1940. The circumstances were very different from those that we face today, but I think that his observations are very relevant to the development of a defence policy that deals with the reality—the fact that a maritime nation must be able to be in the front line in both peace and war. Sir Winston said: You may look at the map and see flags stuck in at different points and consider that the results will be certain, but when you get out on the sea with its vast distances, its storms and mists, and with night coming on, and all the uncertainties which exist, you cannot possibly expect that the kind of conditions which would be appropriate to the movements of armies have any applications to the haphazard conditions of war at sea.

6.27 pm
Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who chairs the Defence Select Committee so admirably, sensibly drew our attention to the grave concern that is felt about future developments in Russia and the need to preserve our overall NATO capability. His chairmanship of the Committee has done us a great service.

The end of the cold war has made the defence equation not less difficult, but much more difficult. There are obvious pressures to reduce spending. We can take some comfort from the fact that our reductions are less, in percentage terms, than the reductions in the budgets of our NATO allies, but it is clear to me that we live in a very unstable world.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on his excellent speech to King's college this week, when he set out admirably the realities of an unstable world of which conflict is sadly a continuing feature, and the certainty that there will be trouble somewhere in the future—trouble that will require our involvement. He set out cogently the need for the United Kingdom to maintain strong, well-balanced forces. I assure him that he will have very strong support from Conservative Members in his battles with the Treasury.

We may wish to have a larger Navy, but what we have is, I know, a strong, capable, well-manned and well-led force, retaining an all-round capability above, below and on the surface of the sea. With the end of the cold war, the number of ships has decreased, as has the size of the navies of all our allies. The target strength of the United States navy, obviously the largest navy in the western world, was 600 ships. That navy achieved 546 ships before the end of the cold war. It is now down to 373, and will soon be down to 346. It has halved the number of submarines and it is more than halving the number of surface escorts. Those figures for the United States include the equivalent of our Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.

We maintain a Royal Navy fleet, including RFAs, of more than 100 ships. That is a commendable contribution to the world naval scene.

When the trouble blew up in the Adriatic, the Navy—as always—responded instantly and effectively, in spite of having to maintain its other—commitments around the world. It was interesting to see a list of places where the crews of our ships spent Christmas day a few months ago. Apart from the numerous ships in the Mediterranean, there were vessels in Brazil, in the Falkland Islands, in the Gulf and in the far east. "Join the Navy and see the world" remains true today.

No praise can be too high for the men and women who serve on those ships and support them ashore, and for their leaders. They are professional, competent and loyal. Visiting one of our ships, one is immediately struck by the age of the crew—at least, someone of my age is struck by the age of the crew—which, I am told by captains, is now, on average, less than 21: officers are included in the calculation. It is amazing that a destroyer or a frigate in harm's way in the Gulf or the Mediterranean would have a crew with an average age of less than 21.

We are going through what seems to those crews to be a period of constant change in the Navy. We understood the reasons, but I would say to Ministers: let us have an end to reviews with the present "Front Line First". They inevitably bring worries about the effect on careers and we need a period of stability in the years ahead. Therefore, let "Front Line First" be the end and let us finally decide where we are going as a result of that review.

The Adriatic is very much in our thoughts. I was fortunate enough to go there recently and have a briefing at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters in Naples. It is a very successful operation under Admiral Mike Boorda, the American admiral commanding the southern flank of NATO. It is an exellent example of NATO and the Western European Union working together. There is joint tactical command of the ships at sea, which is working effectively. There is burden-sharing between the many nations that are supplying the ships for the blockade. About 30,000 merchant ships have been interrogated and about 500 have been directed to ports in Italy for examination. The blockade has been completely successful.

We also have in the region the carrier group led by HMS Ark Royal. Our thoughts on Tyneside are especially with Ark Royal and her sister carrier, as they were built at Swan Hunter on the Tyne. If there should be air action over Bosnia in the next few days, we know that the Fleet Air Arm from the Ark Royal will be ready to play a full and effective part.

The need for deployment in the Adriatic has again shown the value of the carrier. It is free from any problems of basing ashore. However, I must pay tribute to what I heard of the support given by the Italians to the operation in the Adriatic. They have given full support on the sea and in the air and have made available every possible facility to the United Nations forces. The carrier is nevertheless free from the problems of having to find a base—it carries its base with it in the RFAs. It makes possible a quick reaction and, interestingly, it can steam to avoid the bad weather that, at times, can close the shore bases from which the air forces operate.

I shall say a few words about the fleet train, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, of about 21 ships. Recently on one day, two were in the Falkland Islands, four were in the Adriatic—where they are playing a vital role—one was in the Gulf, one was in the West Indies and three were exercising with the Royal Marines. Without the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the warships could not operate as they do. They provide the Navy with endurance and flexibility. They are indispensible, but some are getting rather old. Indeed, some are becoming very old ladies.

There is a case for going ahead, in the near future, with some new auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels or something on those lines; perhaps somewhat simpler than the two that were added to the Navy in recent years, and perhaps something less suited for all-out war in the Atlantic, but suited for support of task forces in areas such as the Gulf or the Adriatic.

I shall now discuss the main surface warship fleet—the destroyers and frigates. It is a commendable feature of the fleet that the average age of our destroyers and frigates is now only 10 years. There never has been, in my time, such a low age for the escorts in the Navy. Indeed, it is the lowest figure since the first world war. It means that, as we take new ships into service, we will be paying off old ships at the age of perhaps only 15 years.

One can argue that, with such a modern fleet, we should stop ordering new ships, but I am sure that that would be a bad decision. I do not believe for a moment that it is the one that will be taken by the Government. New ships have the obvious advantage of the latest technology, but they also need smaller crews, they do, or should, need less maintenance and they should take less time to refit. As a result, they should be more available and provide better value for money for the taxpayers. There is a strong case, therefore, for continuing with a warship-building programme and I believe that that is the desire of the Government, even if it means that we shall pay off some escorts at a relatively early age.

As part of the programme that has been announced by the Government, there will be new mine counter-measures vessels, new submarines, more type 23 frigates and, at last, replacements for the landing ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, which is important for the Navy, the Royal Marines and, I hope, Tyneside.

On the horizon—not so far away, I hope—is Project Horizon, the joint NATO frigate, of which we are supposed to buy 12, the French four and the Italians four. The people in British industry expect that the sharing of the work will be equated to the number of ships being ordered by each of the three countries. There is nothing, at present, to lead one to suppose that that will not be the case, but it is a factor which needs to be watched.

It is essential that we maintain our shipbuilding capacity. We must bear in mind—returning again to the wise remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster—the fact that we need to maintain the capacity to regenerate if things go wrong on a massive scale. One cannot build a shipyard overnight. There is a case for maintaining a capacity for future expansion if necessary. At the same time, the more yards there are, the better will be the competition and, presumably, the value for money for the orders that are placed by the Government.

I know that the House would expect me to mention the sad case of Swan Hunter, which collapsed shortly after the previous Navy debate. The Government were justified in their decision to have the three frigates being built there completed. It was interesting that, at the time, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State assured me that they had not approached any other yard to have that work done, and they had rejected the approaches made to them by other yards keen to take over the work of completing those frigates.

That decision to support Swan Hunter has been fully justified. HMS Westminster sailed on time, built to the highest possible standards, and I believe on or below the target cost. Work on the other two frigates is progressing well and the Navy remains, as always, a satisfied customer of Swan Hunter. Ministers also sent to the yard the work of completing the Fort George, after her trials.

The highest tribute is due to the work force at Swan Hunter for the way in which they have continued to perform magnificently under the most distressing of circumstances, with half their colleagues losing their jobs around them. The labour force there is a great asset, and potential buyers must value it highly.

The Government fought hard and successfully—an uphill battle, as I know from my experiences of visiting the Commission in Brussels—to obtain intervention funding for merchant shipbuilding at Swan Hunter. The door was very nearly shut at the start of the battle. The battle raged for months and was eventually won by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry. That will enable Swan Hunter to compete in the merchant navy market, and intervention funding of up to £7 million is available for that.

An interesting feature in the argument that eventually prevailed in the face of great opposition from Brussels was the fact that the Government pointed out the special facilities at Swan Hunter. If they were not to be available, they would have to be replicated elsewhere to provide the Navy with all the ships that it will need in the future. I am thinking especially of the eventual replacements for Ark Royal and her sister aircraft carriers.

There is still hope for Swan Hunter. This morning, I had discussions with a potential buyer and, in a few days' time, I shall meet another. The media are obviously extremely interested, but, as I have said to them, negotiations are best conducted in private, not in the glare of media coverage.

Significant naval orders are to be placed in the next few years, but the potential buyers recognise the facts of life. They know that to keep the yard going by relying on Royal Navy orders paid for by the taxpayer is not realistic. There must be additional work, which will have to be in the form of exports.

If the yard is to have a future, it must have a new owner. It is in the interests of the Government that the yard should have a future so that competition can be maximised in orders for the Navy. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has agreed to allow Swan's to tender for new work, subject to the backing of a new owner. Tenders are being submitted for some work which could be vital to the future of Swan's.

Swan's has retained its design team. I pay tribute to Lloyd's bank, which has done all that it can to help, and to the receiver and his team who have done an excellent job in difficult circumstances. They have slimmed down the yard's overheads and made a yard that was very efficient in terms of the quality of its products much more efficient in terms of a reduction in its costs. It is now a very different Swan's from that of a year ago and it must surely be in the interests of the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the lean, efficient Swan's survives as a traditional centre of marine excellence, providing effective competition for future orders for the Royal Navy and better value for the taxpayer.

6.41 pm
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am pleased to participate in the debate and, in particular, to be able to add my voice to those who have praised the excellent service men and women who serve in our Navy and in the armed forces and on whom the defence of our nation depends. I note, however, that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, the voices of Conservative Members are sometimes belied by their actions.

This week, I received some information from the Library about the monetary rewards given to our service men and women. A service man who had been a commodore between 1978 and 1994 would have received a pay increase of 18 per cent. in real terms. An able seaman in the same period would have received a 13.7 per cent. decrease in pay in real terms. I hope that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have something to say about that. I also trust that he has a sharp pencil, because I have a number of questions that I should like him to answer; I am sure that he will.

I shall focus on some issues relating to defence and the Navy which have sometimes been neglected, not intentionally but because they have been swamped by others. Last year, I spoke a great deal about the royal naval dockyard in Plymouth and my concerns about the Trident contract and, since then, I have spoken about the surface fleet repair orders.

Tonight, I should like to focus on two different matters, one of which is the gradual withdrawal of the Navy from Plymouth and the south-west and the "downsizing", as I believe it was called earlier, of the Navy in our area and the effect on the local economy. I shall also say a few words about some important issues affecting royal naval personnel and their families.

Having examined the records of debates over the years, it is clear that such issues have not had an airing in the House, so I shall take this opportunity to correct that. Before I do so, however, I cannot avoid mentioning the royal dockyard at Devonport and I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would be surprised if I did not.

Last year, I welcomed the fact that the Trident refit contract went to Devonport. I know that it has been very difficult for my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) who last year fought extremely hard on behalf of her constituents and her dockyard and who put up an excellent fight last year. She has made an excellent case again tonight. I know how difficult it has been for her and I am aware of the many problems in her part of the country.

The Minister will know, however, that things are not altogether rosy in Devonport, because since it was announced that Devonport had won the contract, we, too, have suffered substantial job losses. Most of the Trident work will not flow to Devonport until the end of the century, about 1998. Can the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient surface work to sustain the dockyard in the meantime, so that, when 1998 comes, the yard is able to carry out the work on the Trident submarines?

I deal now with the privatisation of the dockyards. People who work in the dockyard and people who live in Plymouth have a number of questions. What is the timetable for privatisation? Will the Minister say something about his inner thoughts on this important matter? I shall not rehearse all the arguments about privatisation—that can properly be done in another forum—but a number of questions need to be answered, especially in view of the developments in the last week or so involving Rover.

Rover was privatised five years ago and taken over by British Aerospace. It has now been taken over by BMW. Is it possible that Devonport could be taken over by BMW or some other foreign company? Could such a company have Arab involvement? Could it contain potential enemies who happened to be large investors? The Government had no scruples about selling arms to Iraq, which is why I am seeking reassurance about that matter.

The Devonport dockyard is of vital strategic importance to the Royal Navy and to the defence of our country. If it is privatised, will it be another vital facility about which the Government will say, "It is nothing to do with us," as they have about the Rover deal? After privatisation, what device will the Government use to ensure that the dockyard continues in British ownership and that British interests are served?

I now raise a matter that is very important in Plymouth and that will be very important in other dockyards and facilities around the country. At the moment, the dockyard is called "Her Majesty's royal dockyard". Will it continue to be called that after privatisation? It is an important issue in terms of the defence of the nation, my constituents' jobs and the prestige of the city of Plymouth.

I have said many times that Plymouth is highly dependent on the Navy and that the Navy is highly dependent on Plymouth. Our record goes back 300 years with the Navy and with the men and women who have serviced its ships during that time. We have a proud history. There have been many changes over the years—we accept that and know the reasons behind them—but the fundamental changes that are taking place now are having a major effect on the economy of our city.

I question the quality of planning by the Navy and the Ministry of Defence and I wonder what sort of co-ordination there is between those dealing with strategic planning and those responsible for financial management. Some important issues need to be addressed about the good use of taxpayers' money; that was mentioned by the Minister when he opened the debate. All too often, we find that millions of pounds are spent on establishments in Plymouth and the south-west that are due to close.

For example, the Royal Navy engineering college at Manadon in my constituency, which is due to close in July 1995, has had maintenance and refurbishment of its buildings totalling £2.8 million in the past two years. How can one justify such expenditure on an establishment that is about to close? It is interesting that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces gave me an answer in Hansard and had to write to me two days later to correct it because he was a few million pounds out. It demonstrates the level of chaos in Ministry of Defence planning.

Even today, I have heard that a contract has been awarded to a builder for the royal naval depot at Coypool in Plymouth. I welcome it because it will bring employment for building workers in my area, but we know that the Royal Marines have been considering moving from Coypool and Seaton barracks because they have been to Chivenor to see whether it is a more appropriate place for them.

Is there a proper relationship between the strategic and the financial planning for those establishments? Millions of pounds are being spent on them and it may be money that is being wasted. I remind the Minister that, in the past two years at Chivenor, £9 million has been spent on office space, yet it has already been announced that the place is to close. I have seen the Minister and expressed my concern about Plymouth and about the need for intervention.

Most of all, the Ministry of Defence needs to co-operate with the local community. It is not enough for the Ministry of Defence to consider only what is in its own best interests. We must look at the broader interests of taxpayers and local communities. If the Ministry were to co-operate with local councils, with the private sector, including chambers of trade and commerce, and with others in the locality, the value added to the land and buildings that it was proposing to leave would be substantially greater than if the matter were left to the Ministry alone.

That is why I am pleased to note that a working party is getting under way in Plymouth, not to take decisions but so that vital recommendations can be made to the Minister by those who know and understand the area. I repeat that it would be a way of adding value to these establishments for the taxpayer. I hope also that the Minister will look at RAF Chivenor to see whether a similar working party could be set up there.

A number of matters affect individual service men and their families, particularly the very large number who are my constituents, one of which is service accommodation. I have referred in the House many times to the number of empty service quarters. In my constituency, we have 227 empty service quarters. In Plymouth, there are 362 altogether. It means that a total of 14 per cent. of the properties owned and maintained by the Ministry of Defence are lying empty in Plymouth. Some are being vandalised; others are having to have money spent on them for security reasons.

The Minister must address that issue. In the whole country, 10,112 out of 72,000 service quarters are empty. As someone has said, that is the equivalent of a small town lying empty, but it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence.

I also want to mention homelessness and what happens when defence personnel, particularly those in the Royal Navy, come to the end of their time in the service. There are three reasons why homelessness affects naval personnel. The first is marriage break-up. There are many tensions in the job, just as there are in civilian life, and service marriages do break down. There are the service families who come to the end of the tour of duty. Others, I am sad to say, have been made redundant under "Options for Change".

Last year in Plymouth, 75 families of former Navy and other military personnel were made homeless. As soon as they leave the service, their right to subsidised rent goes; although some were paying £30 or £40 a week for their homes while they were in the service, their rent goes up immediately to £80 or £90 a week once they leave. That puts pressure on housing benefit and the social security budget, or, in some cases that I have come across, a service man eats into his gratuity to pay the rent on property that he formerly rented at a reduced rate.

Service families may then become what is known as irregular occupants of the property, which is the next stage to being classified homeless. At that point, Plymouth city council has to pick up the tab, the responsibility for these families, and find them homes. In a debate on housing in the Chamber not two weeks ago, we heard that other deserving families were pushed even further down the list.

How will service families fare in the future? I am sure that the Minister has read the consultation document from his hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment entitled, "Access to local authority and housing association tenancies". Section 8.4 of the report says: The Government proposes that a local authority should not be under a duty to provide emergency assistance to a person who has any form of accommodation available, however temporary the tenure. In order to align with the new and more limited duty towards persons eligible for assistance, it will be necessary to provide that a person occupying any accommodation, even of a temporary character, will not qualify. What will happen to those Royal Navy personnel who leave the service or whose marriage breaks down? They will no longer be classified as homeless by the local authority. Who will help them? Will we think it acceptable that people who have given their working lives to the armed forces and often risked their lives could be on the streets with no home whatever, and not even the local authority has responsibility for them?

The Minister will know that there are in my constituency a number of service personnel living in houses that they consider to be substandard. Recently, I was shown a house that needed major maintenance and in which the carpets were damp. The families concerned have been told that no funds are available for improvements. Those are the families of people serving in the Royal Navy. By contrast, at the Manadon royal naval college, which is just two miles away, £10,000 has just been spent on carpets in the wardroom, despite the fact that the college is due to be closed in July 1995.

It is natural that my constituents should ask why it is not possible to have valuable work done when the health of families is at stake. The Minister, in his letter to me, said that the wardroom work to which I have referred was done for health and safety reasons. Many of my constituents would say that it is for health and safety reasons that work needs to be done on their homes. I hope that the Minister will address that question.

I should like now to refer to a very important issue that affects naval personnel. Two or three weeks ago, I attended a meeting in Plymouth that had been arranged by an action group concerned about the working of the Child Support Agency. It was a packed meeting, and I was surprised and concerned at the very large number of Navy personnel present. Their job gives rise to strains in marriage. Long periods away from home lead to separation. Service personnel are just as prone to marriage breakdown as are civilians.

At the meeting, people expressed concerns relating specifically to service in the Royal Navy. I was told that their welfare departments usually give them very good advice, and in respect of most matters people were full of praise for those departments. However, in the case of the Child Support Agency the people who should be giving advice are not up to speed on the legislation and are not in a good position to advise.

I hope that the Minister will act urgently to ensure that those welfare departments, which usually provide very high-quality service, will be able to do so in respect of matters relating to the Child Support Agency. I assure the hon. Gentleman that these problems are causing very great stress among serving Royal Navy officers and ratings.

The Child Support Agency sends out letters demanding a response within 14 days. Anyone who does not respond promptly enough has a settlement imposed on him. Several people at the meeting that I attended asked how a person on a submarine or serving elsewhere could respond within 14 days. Very often, people encounter great difficulty.

The Minister is shaking his head. Let me make it clear that what I am putting to him has been brought to me, separately and independently, by serving Royal Navy personnel. They tell me that they do not receive notification in time to respond within the period specified by the agency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into that very important matter and will make representations to the Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr. Hanley

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have taken that matter up with the Department of Social Security. If there are operational reasons for any response delay, they will be taken flexibly into account.

Mr. Jamieson

I am very grateful to the Minister for that assurance. He may now cross out one of the questions on his list.

Many service men have told me that they can encounter problems throughout their employment if they are found to be in financial difficulty. Some people have found the amounts they have to pay each week being increased massively. I shall not go into all the arguments about the matter, as they were discussed last week, but I should like to know whether people will be prejudiced in their work if they are found to be experiencing financial difficulty.

I want to discuss the education of the children of men and women serving in the Royal Navy. Within the last few weeks, I have come across some very disturbing information. The Ministry has a boarding school allowance scheme, which enables children whose parents live or work away from home to have continuity of education. Such provision is quite proper, and I support it.

Most of the boarding schools are, by definition, private and independent. We all know that such schools have no obligation to follow the national curriculum or to undertake key stage testing, about whose necessity, in the context of raising standards, we have heard so much in the Chamber. Nor are such schools inspected regularly by Her Majesty's inspectorate, and they do not come within the remit of the Office for Standards in Education unless there is some direct cause for concern or a school is trying to have itself registered.

I make those points because many Royal Navy personnel send their children to such schools. and the expenditure represents a very considerable part of the Ministry of Defence budget. The Minister will know that last year the boarding school allowance scheme cost more than £116 million and that the average cost per place was about £7,700. The scheme covers thousands of children. Despite that, the number of inspectorate reports is very small. The schools are funded at four times the level for equivalent state secondary schools, the average cost of the latter being £2,000.

All schools have a very special duty to care for their children—the in loco parentis concept. Boarding schools have a special duty, as their in loco parentis role continues 24 hours a day. Unlike the children in day schools, those at boarding schools do not have direct contact with parents or guardians at the beginning and end of each day. Thus, it is very important that they be able to make private telephone contact with people outside. Sometimes children need reassurance, and sometimes they need to be able to tell people outside things that they cannot put to those running the school.

I put those points to the Secretary of State in a letter of 21 January. I appreciate that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been very busy in the past few weeks and has not been able to find time to reply. My letter contained three very important questions—questions that I am putting now on behalf of Royal Navy personnel. I asked the Secretary of State: Are the HMI and OFSTED reports on private schools made available to all the parents who have children at those schools on the MOD boarding scheme? I can assist with the answer. Although the Secretary of State for Defence has not yet found time to reply to my letter of 21 January, the Secretary of State for Education has, within the past hour, replied to a similar letter that I sent to him. The right hon. Gentleman's reply says: Any school which is the subject of a published report is supplied with copies, which it can distribute as it sees fit. It goes on: The onus is on the school to distribute the report to interested parties or to advise them where the report can be obtained. In other words, those reports are not generally available to the service families who are using the schools. They are available only if the school chooses to let the parents know about the report and to send them a copy.

The second question that I asked in my letter was what programme the Department had to check that independent and private schools involved in the scheme were offering good standards of education and value for money. The third question was whether the Minister would urge the Office for Standards in Education to carry out extensive inspections of all private schools that receive subsidies from the Ministry of Defence under the service boarding scheme.

I am concerned about the matter because I have taken the trouble to consider some of the reports on the schools that are on that scheme. Those schools are also on the list of admissible schools, which is sent out by the service children's education authority to Navy personnel who inquire about boarding education. Two schools that I shall mention are on that list. It seems to suggest that those who send it out have some confidence in the schools that appear on it. I mentioned that in the letter to the Minister and I have given him at least a month's notice of what I shall say.

I have the report of the Finborough school in Stowmarket, Suffolk, which has a total of 216 pupils. Two thirds of the children boarding at the school have parents in the armed services. That school receives money from the Ministry of Defence budget and from Navy personnel who send their children there, yet, in the report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, serious concerns are raised about the school's standard of education. For example, the report said: few lessons were good throughout. It said of the quality of teaching: it was satisfactory in less than half of the lessons seen in the junior school. It said that there had been a relatively large number of expulsions and suspensions … Pupils' standards are frequently limited by insufficiently high expectations and a constant lack of rigour and challenge in the tasks set. That report was conducted in May 1993. What action has the Minister taken on behalf of those children who are being sent there under the boarding scheme? The school receives between £500,000 and £750,000 a year of taxpayers' money, yet, as far as I can see, no action has been taken by his Department or, if it has, that action has not been brought to my attention. Perhaps the Minister has not found time. I shall willingly give way to him if he will tell us something about the school and the action that he has taken.

Mr. Hanley

I merely remind the hon. Gentleman that he spoke to the private secretary of the Under-Secretary of State, my noble Friend Lord Cecil of Essenden, who dealt with that matter. The draft letter and the gist of its contents were explained to the hon. Gentleman. It was explained that the draft letter was in its final stages and that the Ministry of Defence needed concurrence from the Department of Education. The hon. Gentleman knows that such things take a few days to complete. It is not quite fair of him to say that nothing has been brought to his attention about those matters when he knows from the gist of the letter that the matter has been dealt with fully and that in a short time he will receive the official response. By the way, I am grateful to him for raising the issue.

Mr. Jamieson

I am glad that my telephone call to the Minister today seems to have initiated some activity in his Department and that we are now receiving answers on behalf of the children in those schools. I did not seek the answers for myself, but for the children in those schools and their parents.

Perhaps, while the Minister has the matter in his mind, I shall turn his attention to another school. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."] Conservative Members are saying "Oh no." May I remind them that in their constituencies, there are probably children who attend some of those schools? They may not be concerned about the standard of education that those children receive, but I am. The parents have a right to know what the reports contain. The reports are treated almost as if they are secret documents and it is only proper that the contents are brought into the public domain, since public money is being spent on those schools through the Royal Navy and the boarding school allowance scheme.

The Rodney school in Kirklington, Nottinghamshire, was inspected in June 1991. As far as I know, it is in operation and 27 per cent. of its pupils are on the boarding schools allowance scheme. An article in The Times a year later said: A second independent school in little more than a week was yesterday given six months to improve standards or face closure. What has happened about that school since 1992? Children of service men and women have been attending that school week on week and the taxpayer is paying for it to be maintained.

I found another school that is not on the list—

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is talking about education, which may have some tangential, but only a tangential, relationship to the debate on the Royal Navy. Is it in order to speak for 35 minutes and for the past 10 minutes to talk about education in a debate which is devoted to the Royal Navy?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

There is no time limit on speeches, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. It is up to individual Members. So far, the hon. Member has been quite in order.

Mr. Jamieson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that reassurance. I must say to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that I am talking about the education of children of parents who are serving in the Royal Navy and in the armed services. If I were out of order, I am certain that Mr. Deputy Speaker would have ruled me so.

Another school, which is not on the list of admissible schools, but has a large number of children who are on the boarding school scheme is Hillsea college in Basingstoke, Hampshire. It received a critical report in June 1991 by Her Majesty's inspectors. I am glad to say that it closed in July 1992, but not because of any action taken by the Ministry of Defence or by the Department for Education. It eventually closed because there were too few pupils going to the school. [Interruption.] Some Conservative Members are jeering.

Mr. Hanley

I am not.

Mr. Jamieson

The Minister is not jeering. He is listening to the argument seriously, for which I am grateful. Some hon. Members behind him have jeered at some of my comments, but my concern for those families is substantial.

I shall refer to another school that I am glad to say closed some years ago. A report on the Crookham Court school by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools in 1987 highlighted safety hazards and unsatisfactory teaching standards. The report said that the school was in a "dirty and depressing state". One of the reasons why the school was closed was given in an article in The Times in July 1990, which said: the owner of a private boys' school was yesterday convicted of sexually abusing one of his pupils. One of the staff was also convicted. The report on the school said that that private school catered mainly for service families. I have tried to make some points on behalf of the families and the children of those people serving in the Navy.

I have tried to raise some important matters on behalf of those families, because some of the children are in poor schools, some of which are in a dangerous condition. I have read the reports, and most of the children are in good schools, with high standards and good exam results, which look after their pupils with great care. My concern, which the Minister should take on board, is that a substantial minority of the schools are not meeting even the minimum standards that one would expect for a reasonable education.

I have raised those matters on behalf of service personnel and their families because they are vital to the morale that we need in the services for the men and women who serve their country every day of their lives.

7.20 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I hope that the House will excuse me if I do not follow the comments of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), although I would wish to associate myself with what was said by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) about Rosyth dockyard. My constituents in Portsmouth would well understand the worries that she mentioned. We who represent dockyard constituencies fight hard to maintain their position, but in a positive manner, seeking to present the qualities of our own areas and never seeking to damage the prospects or opportunities of other dockyards or constituencies.

In the past I have intervened in debates of this nature to call for more ships and more men. That is probably expected of those of us who represent naval constituencies. Tonight I am concerned about the efficient use of the resources that the Royal Navy has at its disposal in a world in which circumstances change so rapidly that planning becomes especially difficult.

In the 19th century one could respond to an international situation by sending a gunboat. Nowadays it is essential that, if a Royal Navy presence is to be deployed to meet an international situation, we are certain that the vessel concerned is capable of meeting the needs of that situation, and is equipped so as to enable it to make a positive contribution then and there. It is also vital that the operations of the vessel should be properly supported and protected.

Much has been said today, and even more on previous occasions, about the situation in Bosnia. At some point the naval presence that we have maintained there for some time may be called upon to play a more active role. The great difficulty is that it is not clear exactly what that role would be. Would it be to assist in landing further troops? Or might it be to help with the emergency withdrawal of troops and civilian personnel from the area?

For example, a few months ago it was not clear whether the port of Split would fall to hostile forces, in which case the whole course of the operation would have been changed. It is not possible simply to say that so long as we have some ships to send we shall be solving the problem.

I am old enough to remember the appalling casualties suffered by the Royal Navy after the end of the second world war in that same Adriatic sea, when our ships ran on to mines laid, we believe, by the Albanians. That was an appalling situation that caused great loss of life, and it reminds us of the fact that the Navy has to face unknown dangers wherever it operates.

That is why I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give thought not simply to how many frigates we should have—although I suppose that we can never have too many—and not only to how many minehunters we should have, but to whether we shall have a sufficiently balanced fleet today, in a month's time, in a year's time, or in five or 10 years' time. Over all those different time spans, we must have a sufficiently balanced fleet to operate effectively in the uncertain conditions that may arise.

The idea of another Falklands operation has already been mentioned. I do not wish to say much about that, but I remind the House that the Falklands emergency arose suddenly and we had to put together a fleet quickly. Fortunately, we still had the kind of vessels that couild maintain an operation in the south Atlantic in sufficient force to achieve our purpose.

The question that I now ask is whether in a short time we could mount an operation against a defended shore, to put troops on the beaches and inland to support forces already present in a theatre of operations, be it Bosnia or elsewhere. I am reminded of the fact that when close inshore operations were required in the Gulf conflict the greatest threat came from minefields. The Royal Navy" s presence there included mine hunters of the latest type, capable of clearing a way not only for Royal Navy vessels to get in close, but for vessels of the United States navy, whose helicopter-mounted anti-mines measures were found to be less effective than those of the Royal Navy. We must ensure that we can clear the way before vessels arrive and that when they get to their station they are of the correct kind.

Our assault ships Intrepid and Fearless have already been mentioned. We are aware of the large sums spent over recent years to maintain those vessels in service, but I ask my hon. Friend whether he can give me an assurance that both vessels are available for service and could be used if necessary to mount an operation against a defended shore. Rumours suggest that that is not entirely the case, and I should like a firm assurance.

Can my hon. Friend also confirm that, when he mentions a landing platform dock, he is talking about two replacement vessels, not one supplementing the existing assault ships, or one stretched to a slightly greater capacity? Two landing platform docks are essential if we are to maintain our capacity to operate away from home waters and to maintain a force ashore in hostile territory over time.

We all welcome the decision to proceed with the landing platform helicopter. That type of vessel would be essential if we needed to move large numbers of troops in or out of a theatre of operations in a short time. However, can we be assured that the Royal Navy will have sufficient helicopters of the right kind to ensure that the vessel will be used efficiently and effectively when it is available and that it can be operated in the meantime from the platforms that we may have to improvise?

There is an urgent need to supplement the Merlin programme of the EH101, the purely naval programme, with procurement of a utility version that would provide the kind of heavy-lift high-flexibility capacity that could be necessary in Bosnia by the beginning of next week. I doubt whether we really have the capacity today to operate in that way efficiently and effectively.

I seek an assurance that we are not simply saying that we have a certain number of vessels, and that means that we have a certain operational capacity but a fleet whose design is based on operational requirements and a clear strategic plan prepared for the future. We must not have simply a residue of ships after the Treasury's budgetary restraints have been met. We need a fleet that can act as the operational arm of the interests of this country and protect those interests overseas effectively, efficiently and flexibly. That is perhaps much more important than simply the number of any one sort of vessel.

Each year I look in vain in the reports on the defence estimates for a clear statement on exactly what sort of operations we anticipate that this country would acept on behalf of the United Nations, NATO or our own national interests, and in which parts of the world we would be prepared to commit our forces. Until we clarify the circumstances in which the Royal Navy might be called on to operate in support of the other two arms of the armed forces, we cannot judge whether the Royal Navy will be able to carry out its task efficiently in the short term, the medium term and the long term.

I ask my hon. Friend to give specific assurances on HMS Fearless, HMS Intrepid and the two landing platform docks. I would also like a wider assurance that the Ministry of Defence has a clear picture of the operations that we could properly undertake and those which are not within the capacity of the United Kingdom.

7.31 pm
Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)

What I shall say is complimentary and complementary to what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) said: first, it is complimentary in that I agree with what he said: secondly, it is complementary because what I shall say goes along with what he said and perhaps extends it in one specific area. I have no constituency interest. There was the tiniest reserve outfit in Ipswich harbour, which was supposed to look after the harbour during the war, but that has long since gone. I shall not criticise the Government's policy with regard to the Navy. I shall merely talk about what I see as the role of the aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy at present and in the past, and how it will fit in with our needs in the future.

The Royal Navy was the first navy to have an aircraft carrier. It stripped the guns from four battle cruisers and replaced them with strutted landing platforms for the take-off of seaplanes. During the second world war, our Navy was one of the first to have metal decks on carriers. It was certainly the first navy to have angled take-off decks and mirror-aided landings on carriers. We have a proud history in these matters.

Everyone recognises that between the wars we lost our leadership over the navies of other nations. Certainly, in the second world war, the Americans and the Japanese far outstripped us in the use of these vessels. They were the first to recognise that the carrier was the capital ship. That was true, certainly from 1942–43 and perhaps all the way through to the early 1970s.

In exercises using British hunter-killer nuclear submarines—the modern capital ships—it has been proved that no carrier group can protect the carrier and its centre from such vessels. Therefore, we must recognise that the capital ship is the hunter-killer and if the carrier has a role at all it is different from its previous one.

We recognised that before other countries. We scrapped HMS Illustrious, HMS Victorious and so on—one of the smallest, Hermes was the last—and replaced them with a different vessel at the same time as the USSR was building carriers.

The USS Nimitz was built in 1975, and the French are still building a large carrier, the Charles de Gaulle—I suppose it would have to be called that—which is not yet commissioned. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we produced a different vessel altogether. Basically, the new Invincible class carriers were designed for anti-submarine warfare. One of them is either on extended refit or in mothballs, according to whom one talks to.

Then a strange thing happened, rather like Ipswich. Ipswich was behind the times when everyone else was knocking down terrace houses and putting up blocks of flats. This country got it the wrong way around in terms of carriers. When we were scrapping the large carriers with fixed-wing aircraft and producing carriers for antisubmarine warfare in the north Atlantic against the threat from the USSR, the cold war disappeared over the horizon. We had wars in the Falklands and in the Gulf, and now we have things to do in Bosnia. Goodness knows where we will go after that.

Clearly, the modern role of the carrier will not be that of the capital ship. It will be the offshore airfield for a large number of planes covering the landing, reinforcement and removal of ground forces in different areas of the world. When we look at our carriers and their role, we compare badly with, for example, the French. The Invincible class carriers are modern—they were commissioned in 1980. Each one is 20,000 tonnes with a complement of 700—excluding any flying staff—nine fixed-wing aircraft and nine Sea King helicopters. The aircraft are there only to protect the carrier so that the helicopters can do their job.

In comparison, the French carrier, the Clemenceau, is 27,000 tonnes—that is not much bigger—and has a complement of 10,000, but that is the French. The number of aircraft flying from the carrier is 37 compared to nine. That is four times the punch that we are putting in. We have two carriers on the way which will deliver a total of 18 Sea Harriers. The French have the Foch and the Clemenceau which will deliver 74. For commensurate effort, the French punch is, unfortunately, much greater than ours, although at the time it seemed that we had more foresight about the use of such vessels.

The way in which we are equipping our present carriers is outdated. I know that it is not easy in these times because money is not easy to come by; I am certainly not giving any pledges. We may be able to reduce the number of helicopters on our carriers and increase the number of fixed-wing aircraft—I do not know, because I have never been on one of our carriers, but I hope to do so before I leave this place.

To follow what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North said, we must ensure that we can put at least a brigade force ashore almost anywhere in the world and cover it by the use of carriers and a carrier task group in the way that I do not believe our present force would be able to do.

As always, the Royal Navy has a multiplicity of roles. It is now our nuclear deterrent. It provides capital ships that can roam the world and do as much damage as any other navy, and probably better. We will always need frigates, minesweepers, and so on. However, we must re-evaluate the ability of the Royal Navy to be able to put ashore, cover and support British troops wherever they may be in the world.

7.39 pm
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

It is a great pleasure for me to contribute to the debate, not least because I am beginning my association with the Royal Navy through the armed forces parliamentary scheme at the same time as the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), who spoke so ably earlier in aid of Rosyth. Through that association, I hope that in future I shall be able to speak with even more experience, especially on the lives and concerns of royal naval officers and ratings.

The debate has concentrated on the wider issues, including where the Royal Navy is heading in volatile times and reduced circumstances. I heartily agree with much that has been said already by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members. I do not want to repeat or labour the points that they made, but I should like to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) and with the thoughtful comments on the role of aircraft carriers made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann). I heartily concur with his comments—a study on aircraft carriers by the Navy would be worth while.

Last year's defence White Paper, which as the House will probably know I felt unable to support in the Lobby, identified three key roles for our armed services. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster paid some attention to those roles, which were: first, to protect the United Kingdom and our dependent territories; secondly, to insure against any major external threats to the United Kingdom or its allies; and, thirdly, to contribute to promoting the United Kingdom's wider security interests through the maintenance of international peace and stability, especially where it affects our national interest or the security of the United Kingdom and its allies.

On the third category, the main threat to Europe and to our allies results from the instability and uncertainties that have arisen in the aftermath of the cold war, rather than from any direct threat to the safety of sovereign territories that belong to the United Kingdom or our allies. Furthermore, it is obvious that a wide variety of commitments has arisen from that third category, Bosnia being the most recent.

It appears that the number of those commitments will continue to rise rather than fall. It is therefore obvious, although not inevitable, that the use of force—whether naval, military or through air power—or the threat of it will, when combined with diplomatic pressures, continue to have an effective part to play in the collective or individual security of the United Kingdom and its allies.

Several of the tasks involved in those three defence roles, such as the rapid reinforcement of a dependency—whether it be the Falklands or another state, for example in the Caribbean—may have to be undertaken alone by the United Kingdom. The effective use of the Royal Navy would be crucial in the fulfilment of that role. Ministers have confirmed that the United Kingdom's ability to project military power across the world, using our sea power, remains a crucial factor in our defence and security policy.

The difficulty is the credibility gap that exists between my hon. Friends' acknowledgement of the commitments that face the Royal Navy and the other two services, and their apparent acceptance of the continued salami-slicing of the defence budget and of enforced reductions in the capability of the Royal Navy to perform those tasks in line with our commitments. The 1992 public expenditure survey round took a further £1 billion from the defence budget and the 1993 PES round appears to want to achieve savings during the next two to three years of £1.4 billion, under the pretext of the "Front Line First" defence costs study.

I accept that the decline in the operational size and activity of the former Soviet Union submarine fleet means that the Royal Navy no longer needs to maintain the same levels of anti-submarine operations in the north Atlantic. It has been alleged that that is why the Government have decided to scrap the Upholder class of submarine. I join my hon. Friends and Opposition Members in asking my hon. Friends the Ministers to reconsider that decision. I also believe that the Upholder class of submarine could be an extremely useful and cheap way to project power, particularly in shallow waters—perhaps after minor adaptations—and we should consider that matter carefully.

I point out to Ministers that the Baltic is another region of possible instability in the not too distant future. The Upholder class of submarine would be ideal for use in the Baltic sea. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement replies to the debate, will he mention the current use of the Upholder class and say whether he has any plans to reconsider its future?

My concern about our commitments is, if anything, made worse by the idea that a further defence costs study is under way, under the pretext that I mentioned earlier. There have been many remarks about having more admirals than ships. Having studied the figures, I confirm not only that that is totally untrue but that it is folly to suggest that scrapping a few of those admirals, as if they were ships, would save much money.

I accept that it is reasonable for the Government to say that privatising some functions that do not need to be carried out by service men or civil servants might save some money and therefore release service men to help with overstretch in other sectors. The greater use of private sector finance in procurement, particularly where it involves leasing, might also solve some short-term problems. A further streamlining of management structures and working methods, especially at Navy headquarters, might produce some savings.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the matter, as I fail to see where the further savings, particularly in the Royal Navy, will come from; it has already instituted its own cost-saving process under the prospect review of naval support structures, which was due to be completed in 1992 but is still being implemented. A further cost reduction exercise will follow the cost reduction exercise that is now in progress. Even with its present force levels, the Royal Navy still faces difficulties in meeting its commitments.

I hope that the Minister will shed some light on another concern. Given that the Royal Air Force has no credible missile system that can be guaranted to bring down an incoming Scud missile, does he believe that the two destroyers or frigates, which under the 1993 defence White Paper will be allocated for the defence—supposedly—of the United Kingdom mainland, will be armed with the sort of missiles that could bring down an incoming Scud? As the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, it would be easy for a nutter or zealot to mount a Scud missile unit on a tanker. We have a problem with terrorism, but there is also the problem of people in the near east, the Gulf and elsewhere who are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their ends.

The firing system of a Scud missile is very mobile and can easily fit in the hold—or, if properly disguised, on the deck—of a super-tanker. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that, given the Navy's skill in bringing down a Silkworm missile while on escort guard duty during the Gulf war, it will be able to do the same should such an emergency arise again. The population of Britain would feel extremely uncomfortable if we had no Patriot-type missiles and no system capable of bringing down missiles in an extraordinary attack which could come out of the blue.

Mr. Colvin

Is my hon. Friend aware that concerns have been expressed about the continued development of what is known as the Patriot 3? The Patriot surface-to-air missiles which were deployed in the Gulf were not 100 per cent. effective, but they had a remarkable political effect on the way in which the war was conducted.

Is not that doubly important because the North Koreans are now developing the equivalent of a Scud which would be capable of firing a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon as far as Tokyo? South Korea is another country that needs an important ground-to-air, point-to-point defence system.

Mr. Hargreaves

My hon. Friend demonstrates better than I could the need for such defences.

If our destroyers must be on standby for effective guard duty of the United Kingdom mainland and that is specified as one of our primary defence roles, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure us that they will be suitably equipped for that task.

I should like to make a final point without which the debate would not be complete, concerning the role of the Royal Navy in Bosnia. I earnestly hope that my hon. Friend will assure the House that our naval force in the Adriatic will be suitably protected if force through air power has to be used over Bosnia.

It is known that the former Yugoslav navy—now the Serbian navy—has a number of submarines. I am not sure whether the correct intelligence exists as to how many of them are serviceable; nor do I know, or wish to know, of the deployment of our submarines in defence of our ships which are operating in the area. I hope that when my hon. Friend winds up he will assure the House that we have sufficient operational ships to guarantee their safety.

A tragedy could easily occur by underestimating the number of submarines that the former Yugoslav navy is able to deploy should it be inclined to do so surreptitiously. It may feel that, through a third party or agency, it could in some way flare up the overall situation in the former Yugoslavia to its advantage by such an act. I hope very much that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure hon. Members who have spoken during the debate.

7.52 pm
Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

The Minister of State began by saying that this was a time of change for the armed services, and for the Royal Navy in particular. He is absolutely right. This is a time of unprecedented change. We have witnessed a large reduction in the size of the fleet and in the number of service personnel. It is true to say that the Royal Navy today is smaller than at any time since the second world war.

Underlying all the changes in the Navy is the rapidly changing international climate. The end of the cold war generated hope and optimism about the future, and rightly so, but it also created major uncertainties. There are still significant threats and dangers, as the crisis in Bosnia and the Gulf war clearly demonstrated. The debate tonight gives the House the opportunity to scrutinise the Government's record while managing the Royal Navy through that difficult period of change. I must say that the evidence to date is not impressive.

There is a lack of direction and focus to our whole defence policy. That is not just my view—it is the view of the Select Committee on Defence. A number of hon. Members have praised the activity and work of the Select Committee during the past three years, and I want to add my voice to those opinions. The Committee has done an excellent job in drawing attention to some of the problems and deficiencies in the Government's defence policy.

Underlying the Committee's concern—Committee members who are present in the Chamber may correct me if I am wrong—is the view that, until and unless we get to grips with some of the basic issues about the appropriate range of our defence commitments, we will be plagued by a continuing confusion about important procurement and manpower issues.

It is right that we concentrate at least a measure of our concern on the Government's procurement budget; not just as it affects the Navy, although that is particularly important to our proceedings tonight and to my constituents. It is true to say that Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. has built some of the finest ships ever to sail under the white ensign. I think that there is genuine cause for concern when we look at the Government's management of the procurement budget.

Using the GDP deflator, defence spending fell by 2 per cent. between 1980 and 1993–94. Defence procurement spending during the same period fell in real terms by 10 per cent. The defence budget has fallen fractionally, but the procurement budget has fallen by five times the reduction in the defence budget.

We are all concerned with the resources which are available to finance and support our armed services. There must be a reasoned debate on what we can afford and what the resources will permit us to spend. No one can pretend otherwise. There is a difficult public spending climate at the moment, and my hon. Friends know how that has come about.

If we are to maintain the operational readiness and the fighting capability of our armed services, it is essential that we at least try to ring-fence the procurement budget whenever possible. If we do not allow our services access to the latest combat technology and weapons systems supported by the necessary software and hardware to allow the systems to work effectively, we will deprive our armed services personnel of the cutting edge. Those are crucial tools which they need to do their job effectively.

Hon. Members must recognise that, in the climate of continuing pressure on defence spending, the Government are unwise to focus to the extent that they have on cutting important elements of the procurement budget. My constituency has experienced the sharp end of some of the harsh decisions taken by the Government. When "Options for Change" was published in July 1991, it represented a devastating blow to shipbuilding in my constituency.

There have been discussions today about the Upholder class. I emphasise the value of Upholder as a class and as a weapons system. When Upholder was being built originally, the Navy was expecting 12, and that has not been mentioned tonight. At a stroke, when "Options for Change" was published, that was reduced to four.

The consequences of that decision are that we will have no Upholders serving in the Royal Navy at all. That is a serious loss to the operational capability of the Navy and to support services, especially secret forces which are landed as part of secure operations and intelligence units.

In addition to the eight Upholders which disappeared from the budget, we lost another six SSNs which were planned by the Government. That random and unscheduled cut caused complete devastation to the naval shipbuilding industry, which must operate on a long-lead basis. The industry simply cannot be asked and be expected to cope with a sudden decline in the volume of its anticipated work.

The redundancies have followed as night follows day. In the past three years, almost 8,000 shipbuilding workers in my constituency and many thousands in other constituencies have paid the price of that with the loss of their precious jobs. So tonight we need to keep our focus firmly on the issue of procurement. Without an adequate supply of the right equipment at the right price, the effectiveness of our armed forces will be seriously compromised.

I want to deal with some specific issues that relate to the Navy and to my constituency. First, when can we expect the tenders to be issued for the next round of type 23 frigates? There is a serious delay in the Government's timetable for ordering those important ships. The ships were to have been ordered in 1993. That did not happen. Now it looks As if the ships will not be ordered until some time in 1995.

Anyone who has a knowledge and grasp of shipbuilding knows that such delays cause serious difficulties for shipbuilders and shipbuilding workers. There must be a doubt about whether the new timetable for ordering the type 23s is compatible with the Government's commitment to maintain an adequate frigate force. The delay will also involve serious industrial consequences which will mean additional redundancies among our naval shipbuilders.

Secondly, what are the Government's plans for the batch 2 Trafalgar class? When can we expect orders to be placed for those boats? The whole programme has been the subject of extensive delays all the way down the line. That has meant additional heavy redundancies at VSEL. It is worth pointing out to the Minister that the last nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine to be ordered by the Government was HMS Triumph, the last of the Trafalgar class vessels. The order for HMS Triumph was placed on 3 January 1986. That is eight years ago. Such a delay in the ordering of a new class of strategic submarine nuclears has been immensely damaging to the naval shipbuilding industry of Britain.

I am sure that there is consensus in the House—I have agreed with virtually all the speeches that I have heard tonight—that it is vital for our strategic long-term defence interests that we maintain an effective SSN-building capability in Britain. That requires not only the building facilities but the crucial design teams. The whole infrastructure that goes into a new generation of ships, which is vital for the defence interests of Britian and our allies, has been compromised by the extensive delay riot only in ordering the batch 2 Trafalgars but in the original decision not to proceed with the SSN20 programme. We can argue the toss about whether we need this or that sort of boat or how many boats we need; but we are playing with our fundamental ability as a shipbuilding nation to provide the vessels.

I hope that the Government will act quickly to confirm that they will be ordering the batch 2 Trafalgars in the near future, and that they will stick to a programme that will allow an SSN fleet of at least 12 boats to be maintained; or is it the Government's intention to reduce yet again the number of SSNs that are available to the Royal Navy?

Thirdly, are we any nearer a decision on the results of the study into the afloat support requirements of the Navy? Do the Government intend to order any new auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels? What progress has been made with the new auxiliary oiler class?

Fourthly, what are the Government's plans for the replacement of Fearless and Intrepid? That issue has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is fundamentally important to the ability of the armed forces of the United Kingdom not only to contribute to amphibious military operations in the NATO area but, on a wider scale, to support United Nations' operations around the world. We must retain that amphibious capability.

Other hon. Members have spoken about the need for two replacements for Fearless and Intrepid. It is essential that there are two replacements. There is an inherent danger in retaining a one-ship class. When it comes to the amphibious capability of the Navy, it is essential that we retain two of those assault landing ships. Certainly the shipbuilding community of Britain looks to the Government to make it clear tonight that they intend to order two of those boats and that that decision is imminent and will be made this year.

Fifthly, I wish to raise the matter of the new common generation frigate. There has been some anxiety about the timetable that the British Government are operating for the award of the prime contractorship in the United Kingdom. An intense competition is taking place between British Aerospace and GEC on the one hand and VSEL and Hunting as an alternative rival bidder for that prime contractorship. We need an imminent decision on that. It is probably the single most important naval procurement decision that remains to be taken this decade. It will affect the structure and shape of the British naval shipbuilding industry well into the next century.

I hope that, underlying that decision, which is eagerly awaited in the shipbuilding community, there is recognition on the part of the Government that whatever decision they take they must act to ensure that the naval shipbuilding industry remains competitive and that there is a variety and multiplicity of providers in that industry. It would be a serious mistake—we have seen it made already in the case of Swan Hunter—for the Government to pursue a procurement policy which operates in an anticompetitive way. It is important that we keep the maximum number of naval shipyards in Britain to provide competition and crucial employment and maintain the skills base that has been built up over generations in the shipbuilding communities.

Another question that the Government and hon. Members must consider tonight is how many new common generation frigates will be ordered. What is the present position on the eventual size of that new fleet? There has been some informed speculation that the numbers will drop from 18 to 12. That would be serious. We must seek to ensure that, certainly in Britain, there is a one-for-one replacement of the type 42 destroyers. That will require a British build programme of at least 12 of those new generation frigates.

The last point that I want to raise is the Malaysian arms deal signed by Lady Thatcher in 1988. There has been a great deal of press speculation recently about the implications of that deal and agreement, and how it has affected British naval shipbuilders. Many Opposition Members look to the Government to come clean on the full extent and implications of that agreement. Is there any truth in the suggestion that GEC and British Aerospace were handed control of decisions about which a British defence contractor was eligible for work under that agreement? That is an important issue. It has affected not only my constituents but the constituents of other hon. Members who represent shipbuilding communities.

As I understand the original agreement between the British and Malaysian Governments, there was a possibility that submarines would be ordered by the Malaysian Government. That has simply not happened. Miraculously, under the terms of that agreement, instead of submarines which could well have been built in my constituency being procured from Britain, a number of frigates were ordered by the Malaysian Government and placed with GEC at Yarrow.

It is important that the House is informed to the fullest extent possible about the accuracy of those allegations and the role of the British Government in subsidising those defence orders. We are not talking about trivial issues. We are talking about fundamental issues of openness in government and the decisions that have affected the shape and size of the British naval shipbuilding industry. I know that many hon. Members will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

I shall finish my comments on that note because I know that there are still many hon. Members who want to speak. To summarise, this has been a unique debate for me because I have agreed with just about every speech that I have heard. It is good to know, for the sake of the health and quality of our armed forces, that there is a consensus in the House about the need to maintain our armed forces to ensure that they have the right equipment at the right time to do the job that we want.

We are entitled to be immensely proud of the contribution that our armed services have made and continue to make to public life. We owe it to them at least to ensure that they have the right equipment at the right time at the right price.

8.8 pm

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

This is the first occasion on which I have had the pleasure of following the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) in a defence debate. Although I do not wish to follow precisely his remarks about procurement, some of the issues that I wish to raise relate to the procurement policy decision-making process.

When I was preparing my remarks for this annual Navy debate, one word repeatedly came to mind. It was "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, 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, part of which includes my constituency.

We were all excited when the Berlin wall came down, symbolising the end of the cold war. Subsequent events in the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries also caught our imagination. Few, if any, could have predicted the sequence of events that followed. Before those events there was a certain predictability—I hesitate to use the work "cosiness" in this context—and, in practice, both the western world and the east knew where they stood.

Since the Berlin wall came down, that predictability has been replaced by uncertainty and, sadly, increasing instability, particularly in parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Initially we talked about the peace dividend and the Government produced "Options for Change". I must confess that, as a layman, I find myself repeatedly asking where it will all lead. We now have the study "Front Line First" and are entitled to ask what the United Kingdom's defence objectives and responsibilities for the early part of the 21st century are, what strategy we will pursue and what defence capability we will require. In the context of tonight's debate, we ask those questions in relation to the Royal Navy.

I sometimes wonder whether the Government, as a collective body, rather than the Ministry of Defence, are clear in their own mind about those responsibilities and objectives. We seem to have a series of decisions about requirements, capabilities, sizes and many other issues but, taken together, they hardly add up to a clearly defined and recognisable defence strategy.

As well as having implications for our national defence and security—let alone our international obligations—that worrying position has a direct bearing on the south-west. The south-west region has the highest dependence on defence and defence-related activities of anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is certainly true in the Plymouth travel-to-work area. I shall concentrate on two specific aspects; the surface ship refitting programme for the Devonport dockyard and the Navy's manpower requirements.

HMS Raleigh is located in my constituency. It is the shore base where all the non-officer intake into the Royal Navy, both male and female, undertakes their initial training. Any announcement about the Royal Navy's manpower requirements will have direct consequences for HMS Raleigh and the Torpoint community. HMS Raleigh has the capacity to provide initial training for more than 4,000 non-officer recruits per annum. In the past three years, the numbers passing through HMS Raleigh have been 1,200, 800 and, last year, 800—a total of about 3,000.

All of us understand that manpower requirements of the Royal Navy are changing. However, the figures show that, in a few years' time, the Royal Navy manpower planners could experience serious problems in terms not only of absolute numbers but of ensuring that they have at their disposal both adequate numbers in all the necessary skills available and the right balance of those manpower skills.

Mr. Donald Anderson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if those figures are put alongside the alarming loss of our seafaring traditions as a result of the decline in the numbers of merchant marines, they add up to a serious problem?

Mr. Hicks

I made it clear that I viewed the recent trends with genuine anxiety. In five years or so, the products of the past five years' training will move into senior non-commissioned posts in the Royal Navy. We are not talking about office manpower requirements, when one can advertise, recruit and train in a comparatively short period but about highly skilled young men. Will my hon. Friend the Minister bear that fact in mind, because it worries me? I know that those involved in the training of those young men are equally worried.

The projected work load over the next five years at the Devonport dockyard is another important issue. Since last year's Royal Navy debate the important Trident refit contract decision has been made. Naturally, I was pleased that the contract was awarded to Devonport. At the same time, Ministers announced that, as part of the offset arrangements, Rosyth dockyard would undertake 16 surface ship refits and one carrier refit over the next 10 years. I do not tonight wish to enter into a debate on the merits of that decision, but the economic results of the decision are questionable in terms of providing value to the taxpayer.

My principal worry relates to the position of the Devonport dockyard before the Trident refit work materialises at the turn of the century. I gather that, over and above the Rosyth allocation, 11 frigates and destroyers will require refits between now and the year 2000. Devonport has provisionally been allocated just three of those 11—HMS London later this year, HMS Norfolk in 1995–96 and HMS Marlborough in 1997–98. To put it bluntly, that work load is insufficient to ensure the viability of Devonport over that vital period. It is essential that Devonport is allocated more Ministry of Defence refit work.

If Devonport is not allocated more refit work, further job losses will occur that could have implications for its ability to retain the current skill mix in appropriate quantities to service the strategic deterrent—I do not say that lightly. That is the dilemma facing the dockyard managers at Devonport. The Ministry of Defence can resolve the problem through enhanced surface ship refit allocations. If Ministers do not recognise that, further job losses will occur.

Ministers should also acknowledge that below a critical employment figure, unit labour costs rise and Devonport could then be placed at a disadvantage in terms of competitive tendering.

I am sure that Ministers do not want that unsatisfactory state of affairs to arise, but the remedy lies in the hands of Ministers at the Ministry of Defence.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand that the winding-up speeches are to begin at 9.20. In the hour remaining for Back-Bench Members to contribute to the debate, six hon. Gentlemen, who have been in the Chamber for most of the day, are hoping to catch my eye. With a bit of co-operation from hon. Members, they may all be successful.

8.19 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I shall keep my remarks brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to comply with your wishes.

It is a pleasure to follow the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and the hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks). I shall take up themes on which they both touched, for precisely the same reasons.

Defence procurement matters are extraordinarily important to communities that rely on them for employment. When I was first elected to this place in 1983, the largest single public sector employer in my constituency was British Shipbuilders. Work at the Swan Hunter shipyard was shared between the Walker yard in my constituency and the Wallsend yard in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers). When the parliamentary boundary commissioner proposed, some 18 months ago, to bring Wallsend and Northumbria wards from north Tyneside to Newcastle, East, I looked forward to representing the whole of the shipbuilding industry on Tyneside. Although the decision has come into effect, one or two other things have happened in the meantime.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East wondered what happens when a dockyard runs out of work. I am here to tell him. Swan Hunter is currently in the hands of the receiver. When the company failed to win the landing platform helicopter contract, some 3,000 people were directly employed at the yard and a further 3,000 workers were employed, through sub-contractors, on shipbuilding but were wholly reliant on Swan Hunter as the main employer.

Since receivership, the number of people still employed at the yard has dropped to just below 1,000, and work is fast running out. It reflects enormous credit on the remaining management at Swan Hunter, and particularly on the remaining 600 manual workers, that they are able to complete, to the highest quality, type 23 frigates, which are sophisticated vessels, for the Ministry of Defence and deliver them on time in those desperate circumstances.

So that the House understands the range and scale of the blow to Tyneside, may I add that our two other major employers, NEI Parsons (Heavy Engineering) and the offshore oil industry—largely William Press, a subsidiary of AMEC, and the sub-contracting work that it facilitates—are also both laying off men with similar skills. Parts of my constituency have male unemployment levels of 90 per cent. In the shipbuilding community as a whole, male unemployment already runs at 40 per cent. A further 600 people will become unemployed this summer unless the Government intervene or a private sector company can buy Swan Hunter and give it shipbuilding work in the near future.

Therefore, what happens when great defence facilities run out of work is that it is a disaster for the local community that relies on those large single centres of employment, and the disaster is not easily resolved. I hope that the Minister will say how pleased the Ministry of Defence is with the quality of work that is still coming out of Swan Hunter and that he hopes that Swan Hunter will make a transition into the private sector and continue to supply warships to the Ministry of Defence.

Conservative Members have stressed the importance of the intervention funding being secured for Swan Hunter. It is not intervention funding in the conventional sense. It is not an unlimited subsidy for merchant work which a future owner can procure for the yard, but a maximum £7 million, which can sit alongside a private sector merchant vessel order that goes into the yard. That will not happen unless the yard also has a base work load, which means a military work load. At one time I had hoped that, with the type of intervention funding that has been secured. Swan Hunter could make a transition to more general reliance on merchant shipbuilding work and more general engineering work so that its over-reliance on warship building could have been diluted. That is now unlikely to happen.

Time is running out for the Swan Hunter yard. The future for the yard will be as a much smaller, leaner and more efficient warship building company. The intervention funding that has been secured may never be used at all. If it is used, it will be as transitional relief to enable the yard to continue warship building, rather than a step away from warship building as part of—dare I say—a defence conversion strategy towards civilian activities. That is an absolute tragedy for the community that I represent. It is also a tragedy for the community which I hope to represent after the next general election, when a large number of former shipyard workers—now unemployed shipyard workers—will be moved into the Newcastle, East and Wallsend constituency, as it will then be called.

The Government have done nothing to help to provide alternative employment or bring new work to the area. I accept that that is not the fault of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. We are asking not for charity for him, but for a fair hearing. We have not had that fair hearing so far.

The decision on the AOR-1 contract cost Tyneside dear. Well over 1,000 people lost their jobs immediately after that procurement was announced. We learned much later from the Public Accounts Committee that the work was carried out elsewhere at an extra cost to the taxpayer of some £58 million. People on Tyneside regard that as unfair. The competition between ourselves and Barrow-in-Furness was not one of two equally placed tenderers. Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. has enormous reserves behind it which it uses astutely enough but which are simply not available to Swan Hunter.

On overseas contracts, the British Government would not even back Swan Hunter in the little contract from Oman for two patrol vessels, which could have led to orders for a further eight vessels. I believe that the Government's influence could have been decisive, but rather than see Swan Hunter get the contract, they let the work go to the French. That contract came at a time when a gesture from the Government would have been seen as an important gesture of confidence in the yard.

The Malaysian contract was a great scandal. The charge against the Government is twofold: if they were playing favourites in an overseas defence order, that is very wrong and unfair to other British companies that would have liked to have tendered for the work on an even playing field. If the British Government used public money to put a concealed subsidy behind the bid of their favoured tenderer, that is not just unfair; it is positively illegal. I hope that sooner or later the facts are ferreted out and are subjected to the fullest possible public scrutiny.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)


Mr. Brown

I thought that I heard a Hooray Henry intervention from the playing fields of Eton.

The people of Tyneside are asking for a level playing field. If the Minister can confirm that he is satisfied with the quality of work from Swan Hunter and that he hopes that it can tender for future work from his Department in private sector ownership, I shall be satisfied with his response to the debate tonight.

8.30 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). I can associate myself at least with his earlier remarks, having visited Swan Hunter some three years ago and seen for myself the excellence of the work carried out there.

I should also like to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) in all he said about Devonport. I played my own modest role in putting pressure on the Government to secure the Trident refit contract for Devonport. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) is no longer in the Chamber. I hope that we are never forced to choose between Devonport and Rosyth; they both have a crucial strategic role to play in the defence of our country.

The debate has done a great deal to reassure me that at least the House understands the dependency of our nation on the sea. Some of our constituents are not as aware of that as they should be.

The United Kingdom still depends fundamentally on sea power. Even after the opening of the channel tunnel, 90 per cent. of our trade will still enter and leave these shores by sea. In war, securing the maritime supply lines will be an essential challenge to the Royal Navy if our civilians are to survive.

The origins of the Royal Navy lie in the protection of the merchant fleet. When Henry VIII had his red, white and blue squadrons, there was no delineation between the merchant and military capacity of the Navy. It gradually separated into the red, white and blue ensigns that we have today designating the different aspects of our fleets. The Royal Navy's principal historic purpose has been to secure our coastal waters and protect our merchant shipping.

Of course, the Navy has acquired many new roles; it has to deal with an unpredictable and dangerous world. We have heard a great deal about that today, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). We should take careful note of the eighth report of the Defence Select Committee which shows the stresses and strains under which the Royal Navy operates.

The least sophisticated, least stable country can easily gain access to the most sophisticated and reliable weaponry. That is a challenge which we must make sure our Navy can face.

My principal purpose tonight is to raise two concerns which my hon. Friend the Minister did not address in his opening remarks. One has been dealt with in a number of interventions and speeches: the relationship between the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy. The other is ensuring that the hydrographic service is capable of meeting the challenges of the modern world.

I turn first to the Merchant Navy. We have heard a great deal from the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster, for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) and for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) about the crucial role of the Merchant Navy as the fourth arm of the defence of our shores.

If the Royal Navy existed primarily to protect the Merchant Navy in the early days, it is certainly true now that the Merchant Navy has a crucial role in reinforcing the Royal Navy. If the Royal Navy is stretched, as it probably is, that role becomes more important.

I should declare an interest. For a number of years, I have had the privilege of advising the Chamber of Shipping and I have learnt the crucial role that the Merchant Navy can and should play in meeting our defence needs.

Several hon. Members have referred to the Falklands conflict and the role of STUFT—ships taken up from trade. More recently, in the Gulf war, there was heavy reliance on charter. Different conclusions were drawn by the Ministry of Defence from their experiences.

In 1982, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse said: I cannot state too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contribution to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade, the operation could not have been undertaken, and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation.". At the end of last year in a television interview, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, commented on the chartering of ships for the Gulf war: The criteria, the test is, 'Can you get them when you need them?' If the answer is 'Yes, and unequivocally yes' then this is a sensible way to use your resources. That is the central question. Can we get them when we need them? Will those chartered reinforcements be available as readily as the Minister believes? I do not believe that they will.

A wide variety of military roles will be required of merchant vessels in a conflict: fleet support, supply tankers, troop carriers, hospital ships, vehicle and tank carriers, stores ships, tugs and salvage vessels. For different reasons, in each of those markets, different conditions will prevail which will make it difficult to be confident that the right mix of vessels will be available.

The crucial reason for that concern lies in the catastrophic decline of the British merchant fleet, both owned and registered. In 1980, some 38 million deadweight tonnes of shipping were owned by British shipping companies. Now the figure is only 13 million tonnes—one third of the level in 1980. The registered fleet stands at only 3.3 million deadweight tonnes, yet the Ministry of Defence insisted in a slightly mealy-mouthed statement nearly two years ago that, in general, there are still enough vessels for defence purposes.

The Government's view is that it is easy to charter, but what if the Governments or the owners of the vessels are opposed to United Kingdom strategic interests? How long will neutral shipowners take to assess the risk to their vessels before being prepared to commit them for use in wartime? Our need is often greatest in the early stages of a conflict. The hon. Member for Swansea, East asked about the costs of doing that.

The vessels that were chartered at the time of the Gulf war cost £180 million—more than twice what it would cost to charter in peacetime. The irony is that rebuilding our merchant fleet, which would be possible using a variety of fiscal and other techniques, would make money for the Treasury instead of costing money.

What do other nations do? More than 100 merchant ships went to the Gulf war for Britain, but only six flew the red duster. France sent 27 merchant ships; 26 of them flew the tricolour. The United States of America sent 165 merchant ships of which 105 flew the stars and stripes.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with the contents of the Jones Act which provides the explanation of why many United States merchant ships have to fly the United States flag?

Mr. Luff

There are many aspects of the way in which the United States has sought to address its merchant navy needs. I do not support all of them, but the United States has said that it needs to do better in any future conflict and has dedicated extra resources to building its merchant fleet.

The Employment Select Committee, in its third report last Session, drew particular attention to the problem of manpower. It might be possible to buy in foreign crews, but can we rely on their loyalty in time of conflict? Can we rely on their Governments allowing them to fight for Britain? The Indians would not let their nationals fight in the Falklands war.

The Ministry of Defence insists that adequate numbers are available. Have the Government made sufficient allowance for the various specialities by category of ratings and officers? Half the United Kingdom ratings perform little more than hotel functions on board British merchant vessels. They are valuable and important functions, but they are not necessarily the most important in times of war. Have the Government made a proper assessment of the fitness and qualfications of many of the numbers they claim? Coastal, estuarial and dock workers all make useful contributions, but their experience is unlikely to be relevant to deep sea warfare.

There is also the issue of relocation to foreign chartered ships. It is not easy to learn how to use new equipment or deal with the foreign language instructions on much of that equipment.

The second and quite separate area that I want to address concerns the hydrographic service. That specialist area of the Royal Navy is sometimes overlooked. It celebrates its 200th anniversary next year, so it is right that we should remember it today. It has functions for the Ministry of Defence in gathering hydrographic, oceanographic and geophysical data. It has particular importance in terms of submarine navigation and for our nuclear deterrent. It also has a crucial role for maritime safety, the protection of the marine environment and maritime trade in all the waters for which the United Kingdom is responsible.

It may be run as an agency on the production and commercial side, but the ships are firmly part of the main fleet of the Royal Navy under the command of the Commander in Chief Fleet. The hydrographic service performs a vital role at times of national emergency. We were rightly reminded earlier of the imminent 50th anniversary of D-day. The brave and courageous surveying of the landing beaches by the hydrographic service enabled D-day to be the success that it was.

There are a number of specific challenges for the hydrographic service. It is a little known fact that only 36.6 per cent. of the United Kingdom continental shelf has been charted. That leaves some two thirds remaining. Many coastal waters have been surveyed only by lead line. The shifting sands in places such as the coast around Dover, where I recently had the privilege of sailing with HMS Beagle, require regular re-survey. There is also the question of changing priorities. The Braer disaster has created a new importance to surveying around the Fair Isle gap.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to address my next point, as it is important. There are new legal requirements. There is some talk of the Germans tabling proposals to amend chapter five of "Safety of Life at Sea" which would impose a massive new burden on our surveying requirements. Perhaps more important, the United Nations law of the sea convention has now acquired its 60th signatory and comes into force on 16 November this year.

Her Majesty's Government are in active consultation over part 11 of that convention, which deals with mineral resources in international waters. I hope that the Government will ratify the treaty before November. If they do, article 76 will have an important impact on our hydrographic service, because it imposes an obligation on our Government to define the continental shelf properly and accurately, and provide a mass of data within 10 years of ratification.

I am told that, in the north-west approaches to our waters, the continental shelf goes out more than 400 miles from the mainland, some way south of Iceland. Charting it is a massive task, to which others will contribute, such as the Natural Environment Research Council, the British Geological Survey, private contractors and private shipowners. But the central effort will be devolved to the hydrographic service. That is of central importance, because articles 77 and 81 of the convention give rights over minerals and drilling on the continental shelf to the country that has exercised its rights under the treaty.

We must ask whether the hydrographic service is well enough equipped to perform that role. It now has only two ocean survey vessels, three coastal survey vessels, one survey motor launch and two naval parties on chartered vessels, apart, of course, from Endurance, the ice patrol ship.

Many of those vessels are relatively old. HMS Beagle, on which I sailed, was commissioned in 1968. New hulls and investment in new technologies are needed urgently, irrespective of ratification of the law of the sea conference. In his recent report, the Hydrographer of the Navy hinted at a number of worrying delays in making the necessary decisions to re-equip the service.

My contention is that the Government are right to be proud of their record on many aspects of the Royal Navy. They are right to be proud of the fact that the Royal Navy has the youngest fleet since world war one. They have two priceless assets—the Merchant Navy and the hydrographic service—to which I believe they are not paying sufficient attention.

8.42 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) has just said about the Merchant Navy. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), about the third report of the Select Committee on Employment on the future of maritime skills and employment in the United Kingdom. The Committee's recommendations—it is one on which I used to serve—are important. I am delighted that it diversified into the important matter of our maritime marine.

I cannot see—the hon. Gentleman put the question to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench—why there cannot be an exercise in the mobilisation of the merchant fleet in support of military operations. It does not have to be a full mobilisation, but I cannot believe that it would not be possible to sit down and do a desk exercise so that at least one would know what was available. One would warn the industry that it might happen at any time, somebody would blow the whistle and we could see who responded, how quickly, and what it would cost.

I am sure that that exercise is possible. I believe that the only reason why the Government do not want such an exercise is that they know very well what the answer would be. Therefore, there would be pressure on the Treasury, as well as other bodies, to introduce reforms, possibly of a fiscal nature, that would improve the situation and help to restore some of the merchant fleet that we badly need.

I should like to respond, as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, to the compliments that have been showered around on the work that we have done. We are very well chaired—I am glad to see him back in the Chamber—by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who brings, as one would expect from a direct descendant of the noble admiral, a Nelson touch to the conduct of our affairs. It is the only Committee in this place never to have had a vote. The consensus and unanimity that we find in the debate today percolates to our Committee's deliberations.

As the years go by, our defence debates take place in an atmosphere of ever-increasing uncertainty. That matter has

been picked up by many hon. Members today. The Government's most recent statement on our defence estimates for 1993 is entitled "Defending our Future". One must ask, against whom, what, where and when? The certainty of the old cold war is now gone, and the uncertainty of the new world order makes planning difficult. That means that the two principles of war—flexibility and mobility—become ever more important.

Also important is the cohesion of NATO. That needs to be demonstrated in Bosnia. If, as in Bosnia, NATO is talking tough, we must also be tough and act with the full agreement of all NATO partners. The situation in Bosnia is a test of the credibility of NATO and its relationship with the United Nations. It is the first time that NATO has been into offensive action since the Korean war 40 years ago.

Accepting that NATO remains the basis of our national defence, it is the north Atlantic alliance that, in turn, is its foundation stone.

Underpinning that is the so-called special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. I know that that relationship has been severely tested as of late, not least by the decision over the visa for Gerry Adams—it was advised against by the State Department and then overturned by the White House. It is terribly important that the hot line that exists between No. 10 Downing street and the White House is regularly used. On that occasion, I believe that communication broke down. Therefore, I think that the Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to Washington is very important. I very much hope that the bridge of understanding and trust between No. 10 and the White House is rebuilt.

One way to assist that special relationship is through defence industrial co-operation. Joint projects and reciprocal sales between the United Kingdom and the United States—the so-called two-way street—are vital. It is significant that, although the political special relationship may have cooled a bit, there is no doubt that business men still recognise it.

It is a feature of our membership of the European Union that so many American businesses now invest in the United Kingdom. We attract nearly half their investment to the EC. The United States is the biggest recipient of British investment abroad. We have more investment into the United States than any other nation. That two-way street must be improved. That is why I want to say a word this evening about two defence industrial contractors: Vosper Thorneycroft and Westland. I will then say a quick word about Gibraltar.

Vosper Thorneycroft is based in the constituency of the late Stephen Milligan, who was our hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh, which borders my constituency. I always regarded Stephen Milligan as a very good friend, a trusted colleague and splendid Member of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The whole House will join me in saying how saddened we are by his tragic death. I know that if he were here today, he would be speaking up for that company and his many constituents who worked there. I am sure that he would be standing, at the Bench just behind me, speaking eloquently, as he always did, without notes, and in an articulate manner. He will be sorely missed by the House.

If he were here today, I am sure that Stephen Milligan would ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he had seen press reports about the French company CMN, which is reported to be bidding for Swan Hunter. We have heard about the problems of Tyneside, and I acknowledge their existence; but—especially in view of what the hon. Member for Newcastle on Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said about a level playing field—it is worrying that a bid is being made for a British defence company by a French company that receives substantial Government support. That will, if anything, "unlevel" the playing field, and it may also add to the excess shipbuilding capacity that already exists in the United Kingdom. Companies such as Vosper Thorneycroft could experience unfair competition.

We have heard about the shipbuilding intervention fund—the £7 million that Swan Hunter has already received. Vosper Thorneycroft does not receive any such money. What do the Government intend to do? They have already decided to exclude foreign hulls from the tendering process in relation to minehunters; a serious French takeover bid for Swan Hunter could result in the undermining of Vosper Thorneycroft and the torpedoing, as it were, of an important industrial defence company.

We should take due note of the current situation in Gibraltar. This morning, I had a discussion with a representative of the Transport and General Workers Union about Gibraltar, and they drew my attention to the review of the Rock's economy by the Ministry of Defence. Over the past 10 years, that economy has undergone enormous structural change. It used to be 75 per cent. dependent on the MOD; the figure is now down to 15 per cent., and falling.

Some 600 or 700 more jobs are expected to be lost in Gibraltar as a result of the review, and the cutting of further MOD work. There could be as many as 1,000 redundancies. I feel that the time has come for a round table discussion between the MOD, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office about how we can provide alternative work and training for redundant workers to overcome the difficulties. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has already been out to the Rock and has talked to people there, but I think that they would like to come here and discuss the matter to ensure that any rescue plan is properly co-ordinated.

Let me ask two questions. First, is it possible for the Rock—as a Crown colony—to be granted assisted-area status? That could well be possible. Secondly, why can it not benefit more from the EC KONVER fund, which is already available to assist in such cases?

I congratulate all our Royal Navy personnel on the superb job that they are doing with UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Adriatic. If they are called on to play a part in air strikes against Serbian or other gun or mortar positions, I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing them well, and a very safe return.

8.52 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I endorse all that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) has said about the Royal Navy and its personnel, especially given the difficult task that it is performing in the Adriatic.

Opening this important debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to the battles of 50 years ago. I was pleased to hear him say that he recognised our responsibility to ensure that such events never occur again. He went on to say how important it was also to recognise the enduring need for sea power.

Inevitably, debates on the Navy tend to be dominated by considerations about its hardware. Those concerns, which have been expressed again tonight, are very real, not least in view of the lead time that is now required to provide new ships at sea. It is no longer measured in years; it must almost be measured in decades. There are other considerations in regard to the Royal Navy, however, and tonight I wish to concentrate on the unique value of its contribution to the life of the nation.

Perhaps in slight contrast to the other two services, the Royal Navy constantly carries out useful tasks. Even in peacetime, the Navy is doing something that must be done—something that is useful and repays some of the expense that the taxpayer necessarily incurs in maintaining it.

My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned a number of the tasks for which it is responsible in peacetime, many of which are in aid of the civil powers. He mentioned the assistance given to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, fishery protection, work to control drug and arms running, work associated with accidents and emergencies and evacuation work—which could be military or civilian.

Mention has also been made of patrols in waters of high strategic importance—such as the Armilla patrol, which has operated for the past 14 years—and of the need to protect sovereignty. In that context, the Falkland Islands immediately spring to mind.

Another of the Navy's tasks is supporting the British Antarctic survey, which is particularly significant in the light of the Rio agreements. South Georgia fishing limits will have to be policed by naval forces, because there is no airfield on the island. The list goes on and on: all the Navy's peacetime tasks represent a return for the taxpayer's money. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) mentioned the hydrographic service. That aspect of the Royal Navy's work has an immediate pay-off, generating substantial income.

Traditionally, the Royal Navy has been one of the finest training schools in the world, if not the finest. It continues to train young men in increasingly high-tech skills which will be relevant to the civilian life to which they will eventually return. It also provides training in man management, the taking of responsibility and good citizenship. All that costs an enormous amount but pays handsome dividends—unlike other areas of Government expenditure, which sometimes appear to produce no return at all.

Let me place on record my regret about certain features of naval life today. We no longer have a Royal Naval Reserve Fleet. During the past 12 months, we have agreed to scrap the Royal Naval Auxiliary Reserve. The House must be aware of the decimation of the Royal Naval Reserve and the ending of a long tradition of the Royal Naval Reserve manning and operating its own sea-going tenders. It must also be aware of the closure of Royal Naval Reserve depots around our coastline.

Those facts, taken in conjunction with the reduced numbers of men employed in the fishing industry and the contraction of the merchant marine, which was mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening, and with the increasing use of foreign crews in the ships that remain under the red ensign, mean that the ships and personnel that we have now are all that we are likely to have to fight with in a future conflict.

Given the lead time to build new ships, and given that we have drained every reservoir and every pool of seafaring expertise, it is unlikely that we will be able to mount any additional forces in any foreseeable conflict other than the forces that we have at that time. That places an enormous responsibility on Government and especially on Defence Ministers.

I invite the House to consider the words of President Clinton in his "State of the Union" address on 25 January, three weeks ago, when he said: Last year, I proposed a defense plan that maintains our post-Cold War security at a lower cost. This year, many people urged me to cut our defense spending further to pay for other government programmes. I said no. The budget I send to Congress draws the line against further defense cuts. It protects the readiness and quality of our forces. Ultimately, the best strategy is to do that. He want on to say: We must not cut defense further. During the debate, understandably, Bosnia has been mentioned several times. The House is well aware of the substantial contribution that Britain is making in that region and especially, in the context of the debate, the number of naval assets deployed in the Adriatic. That is of enormous value and importance because of what those forces represent in terms of their potential for supporting, for reinforcing, for interdicting from the air if necessary and even ultimately for evacuating our forces on the ground. It is a classic example of the use of sea power. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) referred to the 500 years of tradition that we have in the use and deployment of sea power, maintaining a presence or even a threat beyond the horizon, which in its turn deters and lends enhanced credibility to the diplomacy that our country conducts.

I now turn to the words of caution that were so thoughtfully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster when he spoke about the political situation in Russia. I share his worries. As we move towards what may well become a shooting war in Bosnia, I am apprehensive at the prospect of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation being led into a three-dimensional trap. My three-dimensional trap is one of demoralisation, stemming from involvement in a war that we might not be able to win, possibly confronting the prospect of defeat, diplomatically, militarily or both, and that might—we must all fight against this—lead ultimately to the disintegration of NATO, which would be the realisation of Moscow's long-term aim. I invite the House to consider who, even now, remain the world's best chess players.

To understand the danger to NATO and the threat to western democracy, it is necessary to analyse carefully what is happening in Russia today. That, to my mind, is best summed up in the headline that appeared in a brief from the Center for Security Policy in Washington, dated 24 January 1994: Who lost Russia? The same people who are taking it back—the Soviets and their friends.

9.3 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am sure that all hon. Members present will join me in welcoming the opportunity to discuss the future of the Royal Navy. Since the launch of "Options for Change" in the summer of 1990 and subsequent announcements about the size of our armed forces, we have had few occasions to debate the broad strategic implications of our current maritime policy.

I am glad that so few Members of the Opposition have sufficient interest in the subject to be here this evening, because it has allowed me to squeeze into the debate, but I cannot avoid acknowledging the brief cameo appearance of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), the sole member of the Liberal party who has occasionally turned up—rather like a picnic boat at Henley royal regatta.

The facts and the contents of the debates, and the contributions made to them by Ministers, allied with those Ministers' firm decision in favour of a new helicopter carrier—I trust that a complementary order for new landing platform docks will soon be made as well—and the recent pronouncement, which appears to clarify the Ministry of Defence's policy on the size of the surface fleet, bode well and prove that only a Conservative Government can be entrusted with the nation's defences.

There is, nevertheless, a very real danger of a continuing mismatch between the Royal Navy's resources and its operational commitments. For that reason, it remains necessary for the Government to think clearly and carefully about our foreign policy interests and decide which are crucial and which are merely desirable if current financial pressures prevail. In short, where is the front line? Should it be redrawn to match our resources or should our resources be allowed to increase to man a longer front line fully?

At present, the Royal Navy is valiantly seeking to fulfil our commitments to NATO, in the north Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and the channel; to continue the long-standing Armilla patrol in the Gulf; to maintain a presence in the south Atlantic and the West Indies; and, of late, to provide more ships for patrolling the Adriatic. The Royal Navy is also to be found in the Indian ocean and the far east.

Naval technology and doctrine have certainly changed since Alfred Mahan cautioned fiercely, "Never divide the fleet," but surely it is only common sense that our current commitments should at all times be bolstered by the funds necessary to ensure that a naval presence in a particular geographical area is of sufficient quality, in terms of capabilities and the amount of time spent on station, to achieve military and diplomatic objectives.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has tempered the Ministry's vagueness—some might say, understandable obfuscation—about the size of the surface fleet. Until several months ago, projections of a combined destroyer and frigate force of "about 35" could be interpreted—indeed, were interpreted—as meaning 30. We are now assured that "about 35" means no fewer than 34. This trend provides some hope of a more open debate about the role of the Royal Navy, and the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on that. In future, it might even be possible to have an absolute minimum figure, but problems remain.

The projected figure includes those vessels described as being in "extended readiness", a delicate euphemism for totally unfit for combat. If all those warships that are being broken in, refitted and even awaiting sale are taken into account, it means that, for every one vessel on patrol, there are two or three in port.

The United States navy is the world leader in stealth technology but the Royal Navy may become the world leader in another sense. It will be so overstretched by a multiplicity of global commitments that it will be a ghost-like, ultra-stealthy fleet. It is sobering to re-read what a Conservative defence commentator, Christopher Coker, wrote only six years ago. He reported: the 1987 Defence Estimates … suggested … that the Navy would deploy only 45 operational frigates and destroyers by the mid-1990s, a figure very close to the total of 42 planned in the 1981 Nott review". Would that we were to have 42 or 45 operational, or even partly operational, surface ships now.

It is perhaps counter-productive to speculate on which royal naval commitments are more dispensable than others. Such an exercise would merely demoralise the dedicated seamen who serve on particular vessels. The Ministry should, however, accept that the Royal Navy is, I fear, overstretched. With that acceptance, my right hon. and learned Friend will be equipped to consider all possible options for improving the situation without compromising the national interest.

It is also vital that my right hon. and learned Friend should make two cast-iron—or perhaps I should say "iron-clad"—commitments, the first being to resolve project definition by assuring the House that the two increasingly outdated amphibious assault ships, HMS Fearless and Intrepid, will be replaced. Combined land-sea amphibious operations are one of our greatest strengths and they enable us to act, independently or in concert, in out-of-area operations in what Senator Nunn of the United States so charmingly dubbed "come-as-you-are parties".

The second commitment involves our submarine fleet. There is an unfortunate fallacy, fashionable in some quarters, that submarine warfare is somehow less important now than it was during the cold war. I suggest that people forget at their peril not only that the Russian fleet is undiminished but that country's construction programme appears to be continuing apace.

The versatility of the modern SSN—the nuclear-powered submarine—is ignored. Too often it is written off as a platform whose sole rationale is as a submarine killer or as an overly aggressive weapon which does not sit well with the multilateral peacekeeping operations in which surface vessels are used to send diplomatic signals.

The fact is that SSNs are versatile boats. They can be used to launch conventional cruise missiles against land targets, to protect our sea lanes, to conduct surveillance and special operation missions and, through improvements in submarine C31—or command control communication intelligence systems—as an integrated part of a surface fleet. The Government should and, I trust, will assure the House that no more cuts in the SSN fleet will be made. They should also reconsider the decision to disband the Upholder class of conventional submarines whose qualities have been mentioned by other hon. Members this evening.

With a guarantee about the size of the surface fleet and a decision to proceed with a helicopter carrier—which will go hand in hand, I trust, with an announcement about LPDs—the Government and the Ministers on the Front Bench have shown that they hold the Royal Navy's best interests close to their hearts and at the forefront of their minds. What we must now do is build on those guarantees and ensure that the Royal Navy can meet all its commitments now and in the foreseeable future.

9.10 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

It is one of the advantages of having a name beginning with W that, from time to time, one is tail-end Charlie in a debate. When you and I first came into the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our naval debates were illumined by hon. and gallant Members who had spent their formative years before the mast. I have not had that privilege, but we have all had the privilege of hearing some exceedingly fine speeches this evening, not least from hon. Members who either, as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), are distinguished in their field or who have proved themselves distinguished in their defence of constituency interests, be they naval bases, shipyards or companies which support the Royal Navy.

If one cannot spend time before the mast, one can at least try and do the next best thing. In the House, it is to get oneself on to the parliamentary armed forces scheme. I am just coming to the end of my term. I know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly, if I may say so, in politics. None the less, I pay a warm-hearted tribute both to the organisers of the scheme and to my generous hosts, the Corps of Royal Marines. I want, in the few minutes that remain, to dwell on the importance to this country of our amphibious capability and of the Royal Marines in particular.

As has so often been remarked in the course of this wide-ranging debate, we are an island nation which depends on overseas trade for its livelihood and on the maintenance of that trade for its survival. We are different from our continental allies in western Europe, and our maritime heritage impels us towards a concentration, if we are wise, on the instruments of maritime power and of air power which is its concomitant.

The Royal Marines are indispensable to us because they enable us to project power ashore from the sea in an exceedingly cost-effective manner. They are only some 6,000 or so in strength and their budget is only some £200 million a year, but every man of the Royal Marines is trained to the highest standards, and there is no dilution of those standards even at this time of acute economic stringency.

Then there is the versatility of the corps, which, during my attachment to it, enabled me to see at first hand something of its operations. I thought that Belize was a typical scenario, being a country that might at some time in the future require amphibious assistance for its defence. In Northern Ireland, 40. Commando is engaged in west Belfast as I speak. This is a highly dangerous environment, notwithstanding the Government's efforts to secure a political settlement which will bring peace. In addition, I saw marines train in northern Norway for arctic warfare. Without that training and without their special expertise the Royal Marines would not have been able to provide the essential ingredient which made possible the recapture of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

I did not see, but read newspaper accounts of, the Royal Marines' intervention in Operation Haven in northern Iraq. We read about the activities of the naval pilots from the commando Sea King squadrons that are providing such valiant service in Bosnia at present. Before the conflict is over, we may need yet again to be able to project military power ashore from the sea. I should be prepared to lay a bet that, if so—whether to reinforce our presence or to execute a satisfactory withdrawal from Bosnia—the Royal Marines will be there.

I should like to make just two observations about the equipment of the Royal Marines. First, there is the crucial importance, for their operations as for the operations of the Army, of a sufficiency of helicopters. It is my earnest hope that in due time, when the Sea King mark IV comes to be replaced, the utility version of the Merlin will be used. It would make very good logistic sense. The commonality would make for economy in the operations of the fleet. I trust too that, if the Royal Air Force acquires some of these aircraft—I hope that it will—they will be marinised and able to inter-operate with the Sea Kings of 845 and 846 naval air squadrons for the Royal Marines.

Secondly, I gather that it is planned that the anti-armour element of 3 Commando Air Squadron—the Lynx/TOW aircraft—will not be replaced with a dedicated anti-tank helicopter flown by the Royal Marines. I am informed that the Royal Marines will have to rely on the Army Air Corps for this role. I believe this to be unwise—first, because there is a likelihood that the aircraft will not be marinised and, therefore, will be unsuitable for operation from carriers; secondly, because it is almost certain that some general will require the Army Air Corps to be elsewhere when the Royal Marines badly need their aeroplanes.

The other equipment issue which I wish to raise concerns ships. We are delighted at the decision of Her Majesty's Government to procure HMS Ocean, the landing platform helicopter, but this vessel is to be constructed only partly to naval standards. Bearing in mind what happened to the Atlantic Conveyor and to Sir Galahad in the Falklands war, I wonder whether that is entirely right.

When I read my contract bulletin from the Ministry of Defence and see that the project definition studies for the two landing platform dock vessels are to be studies for potential construction without the full implementation of naval standards, I wonder about the wisdom of such a potentially cost-saving measure. I know that defensive aids have much improved and that there are electronic and chaff defences which are perhaps more important than ruggedness of construction. Nevertheless, I hope that we shall not spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar.

Finally, I earnestly pray that we shall be able to retain Swan Hunter shipbuilders in operation on the Tyne. To do so is crucial to a properly competitive naval shipbuilding industry. The yard is fully capable of building vessels such as the landing ship logistic which we shall want and the landing platform docks that we shall need. I hope that we shall be able to keep the yard going until it can be rescued by a French buyer, or whoever it may be. I hope that the LSL Sir Bedivere will be refitted by Swan Hunter.

I praise the Royal Marines and Her Majesty's Government for the support that they have given to the Marines, and I thank my hosts, who made my parliamentary attachment so worth while.

9.20 pm
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Single service debates are normally characterised by a relatively small number of people who have a relatively wide range of knowledge. They are normally leaner and fitter than most of the debates and tonight has been no exception.

A large number of specific points were raised and it is almost impossible to cover them all as well as making general remarks. However, to address one comment to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), many of us had feared the experience of interventions from him in Royal Air Force debates and it now seems that he has geared up to extend his empire of knowledge. We look forward to his future comments in debates on the Royal Marines and other naval matters.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) raised a specific point regarding Devonport, especially the need to retain a skill mix there for Trident. He was one of a number of hon. Members who raised a specific industrial issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) referred to the tragic developments at Swan Hunter. In both those cases we want to see the retention of strategic industrial capacity in the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members presented a pretty devastating critique of the present position of our merchant fleet, to which I shall return, including the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr. Luff), for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) reiterated his view that naval resources did not match naval commitments. He said that there was a mismatch and an overstretch. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Gamier), managed to combine that point in a devastating fashion along with a pledge of undying loyalty to the Tory Government and confidence that they will not do that in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) highlighted the devastating effects of random and unscheduled cuts based on budgetary rather than strategically driven decisions, outlined the effect of those cuts on the shipbuilding industry and asked some penetrating questions about the Malaysian aid deal, to which I hope the Minister will reply in his summation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) raised a range of social issues, especially the disgraceful difference since 1979, under the Government, between the real increase in wages and conditions—particularly wages—among the higher ranks in the Navy and the real decrease of up to 14 per cent. among ordinary ratings. It seems that for the Government and the armed forces, as elsewhere, there are two standards—one for the bosses and one for the poor bloody infantry and the poor bloody ratings.

My hon. Friend also talked of the standard of education in schools attended by sons and daughters of personnel. It was interesting to see how the party of "back to basics" in education did not like the detail with which he had armed himself tonight. Hon. Members said that it was a boring subject. If the education of the sons and daughters of the military of the country is a boring subject, I ask myself why the Tories have been prattling on for the past six months about an education system which they have murdered over the past 14 years. My hon. Friend did a service to the House by raising that issue.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) looked for a balanced fleet and for "a clear strategic view". If he is looking for that, he will, in his own words, "look in vain" to the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) raised some important questions, to which I shall return, about the role of aircraft carriers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) made perhaps the most impassioned and certainly the most moving appeal tonight. She argued, as she has in the past—tonight she surpassed herself—about the way in which the Government have betrayed their commitment not only to our industrial base but to our strategic requirements and to the manpower and womanpower at the Rosyth base.

I repeat that the Labour party believes, and has believed, in the continued existence of two dockyards capable of refitting nuclear-powered submarines. We believe that that is essential, and we stand by that tonight. It is a great tragedy that, as predicted, the so-called guarantees given by the Secretary of State for Defence some months ago turned out to be as flimsy as we thought they would be—

Mr. Aitken


Dr. Reid

The Minister says no, but we are all learning from experience the difference between a written guarantee and a Rifkind guarantee; the second sort is not worth the paper it is not written on.

The hon. Member for Upminister (Sir N. Bonsor) gave his usual polished performance, bringing a great deal of experience, specifically to the criticism of the decision on the Upholder class—I shall return to that subject—and to his comments on the Select Committee's view that our naval forces are insufficient for our commitments. That was also the Committee's view on the infantry, and I suspect that it is increasingly becoming its view across the whole range. If I have missed out any hon. Members who spoke, perhaps I shall mention them during my general comments.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the events of today are moving so quickly that, even as we have been speaking, the situation in Bosnia has been changing, almost by the hour. Immediately before the debate, using a rather spurious answer rather than a full statement, the Government refused to meet a request by someone who is admittedly a United Nations and NATO general, but who also happens to be a British Army officer and a British citizen, for us to assist towards the creation of a more stable environment around Sarajevo by supplying more troops.

The Opposition regret that refusal, and feel that General Sir Michael Rose has been let down, as have the UN forces in Bosnia in general. We appreciate the danger and we take the point about balancing the risks, but apart from the consideration that the request was made by a British general, the fact that we are already one of the largest contributors to the force in Bosnia means that we should be ultra-cautious about the danger of not having sufficient troops on the ground, in the estimation of the UN commander. We are sad, and we believe that the Government have ducked their responsibilities.

Some hon. Members may be aware that since the debate started there has been a relatively surprising political initiative. The Russians have apparently spoken to the Serbs this afternoon and said that they are prepared to put in extra soldiers around Sarajevo. The Serbs appear to be suggesting that on that basis they will withdraw more completely than they had previously been prepared to. It is too early to give a reasoned judgment on that development, but let us all, on both sides of the House, hope that it has the potential to reduce even further the possibility of a terrible overspill into general war, and to de-escalate the situation around Sarajevo.

Mr. Garnier

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the development that he has just mentioned is probably the direct result of the intervention by the British Prime Minister in Moscow this week?

Dr. Reid

That may be the case. I am not in a position to know whether the new policy of "back to Boris" has brought some benefits. If the Prime Minister was involved in the decision in any way, hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that. Perhaps he has made no reference to it since coming back from Moscow because there were secret talks—or it may all be nothing to do with him. If he contributed towards what may turn out to be a move towards peace, of course we shall all welcome that, as we would welcome any steps that could be taken to resolve the savage and cruel war in the former Yugoslavia.

I shall briefly add my voice to the accolades that it is customary to give on such occasions to the service men and women in the Royal Navy. This year, in connection with the Navy, the phrase "service men and women" is probably more important than it was in the past.

It has been mentioned that this year is the 50th anniversary of the greatest armada of ships ever assembled by this or any other nation together with its allies. Our thoughts go to those who gave their lives in the service of their country, especially the role that they played on 6 June 1944. That great armada may have diminished somewhat but, as hon. Members have said, not only in the Adriatic but elsewhere, men and women of the British Navy continue to fulfil a role that is not only productive for this country and its national interests but, one hopes, helps to create a more peaceful and stable world.

In discussing the future role of the Royal Navy, I shall start my general remarks by making the observation, which is perhaps a banal one, that the security of the United Kingdom is first and foremost a question of maritime security—that is self-evident for an island such as ours. In defensive terms, our ability to guarantee the security of Britain's sea lines of communication has always been the fundamenental prerequisite of our survival as a nation. Twice in this century alone—we have already referred to one occasion—we faced a hostile enemy determined to blockade and starve Britain into submission, and twice we have prevailed by the narrowest of margins. Defending ourselves from the emergence of a similar threat in the future remains our primary duty.

If the sea is our first line of defence, it is just as important as a means of pursuing our wider security objectives. If we are denied the use of some of the world's oceans for our purposes, we would be powerless to safeguard our interests overseas, resist acts of aggression against our friends and allies abroad and fulfil our own obligations within the NATO area. Today, as in the past, our vital interest extends far beyond Britain's shores and we must ensure that we retain the ability to contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability wherever it is threatened.

Having defined the two main tasks of the Royal Navy—the defensive task of protecting our trade routes and the offensive task of projecting power overseas—it should be clear that the transformation of the strategic environment since 1989, which has been alluded to by several hon. Members, has significant implications for the relative emphasis that each should be accorded within our overall defence strategy. The disintegration of the Warsaw pact and the break-up of the old Soviet fleet means that we need a radical reassessment of our approach to the use of sea power.

As several hon. Members have mentioned during the cold war our priorities were relatively simple to define—to maintain the transatlantic link and to deploy sufficient ground forces in a forward position to act as a deterrent to any intended aggression. The situation has now changed in two fundamental respects: first, the central front no longer exists and the correlation of forces in Europe has changed out of all recognition; secondly, there has been a dramatic decline in the potential threat to shipping in the eastern Atlantic following the rapid decrease in the size and operational readiness of the Russian navy.

I shall be careful how I couch this because caution has correctly emanated from several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Upminster, for Ludlow and for Harborough. It is essential to guard against complacency and prepare for the possibility of a revived threat. Russia continues to operate a number of modern surface warships and highly capable attack submarines, and an authoritarian regime in Moscow may at some stage in the future attempt to rebuild an ocean-going capability with the intention of posing a challenge to the security of Britain and our allies. Therefore, we are not complacent.

Continued economic stagnation is almost certain to impose resource limitations on what the Russian armed forces are capable of doing in the foreseeable future, regardless of who is in power. Furthermore, as the new military Russian doctrine underlines, the issue of the near abroad is likely to preoccupy Russian military planners for some time. Therefore, although we are not complacent, we recognise the objective economic, political and geographical conditions that constrain even a threatening and ambitious leadership in Russia.

For the Royal Navy, those developments are of the utmost significance. In the absence of an immediate and tangible threat to transatlantic communications, the Royal Navy will be able to spend less time and devote fewer resources to the task of gaining control of the sea and concentrate more on using that control for the purposes of power projection.

Our naval force structure and procurement plans need to be revised in a way that explicitly recognises that change. On paper, the Government appear to agree with us on that matter. On Tuesday, for example, the Secretary of State for Defence told a meeting organised by the Centre for Defence Studies that our maritime power projection capability was a critical component of national defence strategy. He went on to define its core capacity as consisting of three distinct elements: aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and amphibious forces. It is appropriate, therefore, to consider those elements as a convenient yardstick by which to judge the effectiveness of Government policy.

The refit in 1959 of the old Ark Royal aircraft carrier was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). The relationship of existing aircraft carriers to the future capability and role of the Royal Navy was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. In view of the importance accorded to the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers by the Secretary of State, I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will be able to deny categorically a recent press report that HMS Ark Royal is to be mothballed—although the MOD, using its latest euphemism, would say that it is being placed in a state of "extended readiness". Someone in the MOD must be being paid to do nothing but think up beautiful euphemisms. As has been mentioned, we have not cuts but "downsizing".

I hope that the Minister will deny the report, because there would be a significant diminution in our maritime intervention capability if extended readiness, mothballing or any other euphemism that the MOD can produce, were to shroud the Ark Royal. We know from our experience of the Falklands war that a force consisting of two carriers affords a degree of air power that is barely adequate to conduct maritime operations in a hostile environment. Without the Ark Royal, it would be impossible to ensure even a two-carrier deployment.

As the Secretary of State said on Tuesday: to be an effective tool, a naval force must have a credible capability to act". Unless the Ark Royal receives its planned refit, such a credible capability will cease to exist. The Secretary of State must understand that.

It is interesting that the Secretary of State specified nuclear-powered submarines in his speech. As we are all aware, last July the Government announced their intention to lease or sell the United Kingdom's fleet of four Upholder class diesel-powered submarines, a matter to which various hon. Members alluded. It must now be obvious to the Government, in view of the comments from hon. Members on both sides of the House, that the wisdom of that decision is questionable.

The smaller draft of Upholder vessels compared with the larger nuclear-powered attack submarines makes them better suited to the type of coastal operations that are vital in amphibious warfare, especially in mine-clearing and special forces operations. The unique inshore capabilities of those vessels are still required. It remains for the Government to explain how the assets will be provided if all four Upholders are sold.

The final element of naval power identified by the Secretary of State—the amphibious capability—is even more interesting. There has been a great deal of comment by hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and for Barrow and Furness, on amphibiosity and amphibious capability. We know that assault ships Fearless and Intrepid were used during the Falklands war and both would be needed again in any future large-scale operation.

"Extended readiness" is a phrase that we have heard again in relation to one or both of those ships. Will the Minister give a categorical assurance that Intrepid could be made operational in the event of an emergency? Will he confirm that Fearless has been kept operational in much the same way as the second division in the Gulf was kept operational—by cannibalising the first? Will he confirm that Fearless has been kept operational because the Intrepid is being cannibalised for spare parts? Unless he can give us that categorical assurance, many will wonder whether the guarantees that we shall have two amphibious ships at our disposal ring hollow. I fear that the real answer cannot be given tonight and that the term "extended readiness" is little more than an exercise in obfuscation.

It is a matter of great national concern that the Royal Navy's amphibious capability has been allowed to lapse into such a state of disrepair. It is an indictment of the Government's approach to defence policy that they have so far failed to provide the resources and take the decisions needed to rectify that problem.

Last November, the Secretary of State announced to the Select Committee on Defence that he would invite tenders for a further batch of Sandown class minehunters, taking our total force "up to" 25 vessels. First, that was a declaration of intent, and no one should think anything else; it is not a firm order. Secondly, it is vague commitment, with the phrase "up to" 25. Thirdly, even if the orders were placed today, there would be a danger period, spreading to the end of the century, in which mine counter-measures capability would be perilously overstretched. Can the Minister give us any further concrete news on how that situation now stands?

The merchant marine has been mentioned by almost every hon. Member tonight. I need say no more than that there is unanimity in the House that this country is no longer capable of mustering anything remotely near to the type of back-up that we would need from the commercial sector if there were a national naval emergency. One of the first priorities of a future Labour Government will be to seek ways to identify a core of militarily useful commercial ships and to devise the means by which their continued availability can be assured.

The time for choices is rapidly approaching. We cannot go on indefinitely postponing decisions, pushing back orders and tapering back training. We cannot go on having cuts and cannnibalising one section of the armed forces' equipment to keep another one going.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West quoted Churchill in a moving section of her speech. Churchill also said that one of the facts of life was that when one took the most audacious airman, the most courageous seaman and the most gallant soldier and put them in a room together, the result was the sum total of their fears.

I am afraid that if we put the Ministers for Defence together, we would appear to get the sum total of their fears. They fear, on the one hand, the Treasury and, on the other, making decisions which might alienate some people in the short term, but which would be absolutely essential for the benefit of our armed forces in the long run. Unless they overcome those fears, they will do a disservice to themselves, the House, the Navy and the rest of the armed forces.

9.42 pm
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)

I am glad that, in his catalogue of fears which he thinks the ministerial team has, the hon.Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) did not include a fear of the Opposition Front Bench. I can certainly assure him that that is not high on our list of priorities.

I am glad to open the winding-up speech by paying the traditional, but nevertheless wholehearted, tribute to the men and women who serve in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. Hon. Members from all parts of the House throughout the debate have expressed consistently high praise for their professionalism, loyalty and dedication to duty. I am glad to add the Government's tribute of appreciation to the senior service.

I express that appreciation tonight with particular feeling because, although there have been some encouraging developments today in Sarajevo about which I shall say something in a moment, it is still possible that Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots could have to go into action next week. That is a sombre thought and makes this debate on the Royal Navy all the more timely and appropriate.

There has been an encouraging and important new development to the situation in Sarajevo today. The Russian Government have offered 400 troops to join UNPROFOR. As a consequence of that announcement and of other developments, including the British Government's announcement that we will be redeploying some 300 men to Sarajevo from Vitez, it appears that General Rose is getting more and more of the troops he has requested to help monitor the ceasefire. That ceasefire appears to be making encouraging progress and it is being reported tonight that there has been a significant increase in the withdrawal of Serb artillery units beyond the 20 km line.

It is too early to say that the ultimatum has been complied with, but the early signs are distinctly encouraging. The British Government welcome those developments. We are glad that the Russion Government have been so active in persuading the Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons. The matters were discussed between President Yeltsin and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. They agreed on common objectives in Bosnia during their talks in Moscow. Both Governments wanted to see heavy weapons withdrawn from Sarajevo. Both Governments wanted to see those weapons brought under United Nations control. Both Governments wanted to see the peace negotiations given new impetus. Those developments appear to be happening.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister suggested that we and our partners should use whatever channels we had to bring our influence to bear on the warring parties. President Yeltsin privately gave the Prime Minister notice that he intended to send a personal emissary, Deputy Minister Churkin, to meet the Serbs, and that Russia might be prepared to deploy additional troops to Sarajevo to control heavy weapons.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence did everything that they could to encourage that. So today's news that the Russians have made some progress is seen as a most welcome development, arising as it did directly from the talks in Moscow. The whole House will congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on what has clearly been a most successful diplomatic initiative.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

My hon. Friend is obviously right, and I am sure that the whole House will join him in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and welcoming the Russian initiative to send assistance to us in Sarajevo. I see on the tapes this evening that there is a planned meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Italy on Sunday. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the meeting will go ahead? We all hope that there will be no need to undertake any further initiative and that what has been agreed today will be effective.

Mr. Aitken

I can, indeed, confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the United States Defence Secretary and Defence Secretaries of other nations that have aircraft based in Italy which would be involved in securing compliance with United Nations resolutions will meet in Italy on Sunday. It will be a briefing meeting which will allow them to be briefed at first hand by operational commanders of their own contingents.

I shall do my best to answer the points raised in today's Navy debate. Before I leave the subject of Bosnia, I must say to the two Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen that they seemed to be unduly and unfairly churlish about the British contribution in Bosnia. I should point out that we are already providing one of the largest contingents in UNPROFOR.

We are contributing to the United Nations' immediate needs by agreeing to the redeployment of some of our forces, notably two companies of the Coldstream Guards from Vitez to Sarajevo and a mortar locating troop equipped with Cymbeline radar. Those extra special resources for which General Rose has asked are a most effective contribution and response to the United Nations request.

General Rose has been told of this morning's Cabinet decision and I understand that he is very pleased with the British contribution. I only wish that the leader of the Liberal Democrats was in his place tonight. I would like to say to his face that his remarks in the House this afternoon were misplaced, ill advised and utterly wrong.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

The Minister is perfectly entitled to his view. As he was so keen to say that to my right hon. Friend's face, did he contact my right hon. Friend's office during the day to give him warning that he would like him to be here?

Mr. Aitken

I intended no discourtesy in parliamentary terms. The leaders of parties can look after themselves and must expect their public statements to be responded to. It was not a personal attack. I was criticising his political position.

Mr. Kennedy

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Aitken

No, I will not give way.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

It is now a quarter to 10 at night. Would not it have been better if the Prime Minister had come to the Dispatch Box at 3.30 pm and made a statement on Bosnia and Russia?

Mr. Aitken

The hon. Gentleman merely reveals the unsuitability of himself and his party for government. Has he never heard of secret diplomacy? Has he never heard of co-ordination of the timing of announcements with allies? Surely he realises that the British and Russian Governments had to co-ordinate. It was right that the Russian Government should make their announcement at the appropriate time.

In the limited time available to me, I shall now return to naval matters. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who I see returning to his place—I hope that I did not worry him too much with my earlier criticisms; I thought that he might have taken flight—asked about Upholder submarines. That subject was also mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) and others.

As we announced in the 1993 White Paper, the Upholders are being withdrawn from service in the six months leading up to March 1995. That was an extremely difficult decision for us to take. It was due to the fact that there has been a fall in Soviet—now Russian—navy activity, particularly in the Greenland-Iceland gap, where the Upholders were designed and designated to patrol.

I was confused by the speech of the hon. Member for Swansea, East because, having criticised us for proposing to withdraw the Upholders, in another part of his speech he seemed to refer to the Greenland-Iceland gap and say how good it was that the United States had reduced its activity in that region. But at the end of his speech, he demanded less anti-submarine activity and greater power projection of maritime forces. I think that there was some confusion—he cannot have it all ways, even if he is a Labour party spokesman.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Swansea, East when he talked about the need for maritime power projection for various purposes, including the defence of what he called microstates. He referred to the landing platform for helicopters, which he mysteriously called a cost-cutting measure—that is not what my hon. Friends the Treasury Ministers called it when the project was approved. LPH achieves mobility, flexibility and the amphibious element that is crucial to future peacekeeping operations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster referred to a rumour. He was right in describing it as a rumour, and I can scotch it once and for all. It was rumoured that, because we introduced the LPH, the carrier would be scrapped as a consequence. We have no such plans or intentions and the rumour is false.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster also mentioned piracy, and I can give him a more emollient reply than he was given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) about the Malacca straits. We believe that all attacks on merchant ships at sea are a matter of great concern. Royal Navy ships will take all appropriate measures to respond to incidents of piracy whenever they are able to do so. The United Kingdom is playing an active role with the Association of South-East Asian Nations and other states in the International Maritime Organisation to combat piracy.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), referred to the merchant shipping fleet, which has been of concern to us. The last decade has seen a significant decline in the British flag merchant fleet. We at the Ministry of Defence keep a close watch on the numbers of strategic ships to ensure that our plans are capable of being achieved.

Many of the issues raised about increasing the size of the merchant fleet are matters for the Department of Transport, not the Ministry of Defence. A new package of measures to help the British shipping industry and encourage more British shipowners to fly the red ensign was announced by the Department of Transport on 15 December. Those measures include new regulations simplifying the registration of merchant ships, and consultation on the proposal that, except for strategic ships—where there will be a nationality requirement for the master to be British, or to be from British Commonwealth, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or EC countries—officers of United Kingdom-registered ships can be of any nationality.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) made a moving speech. She has been a doughty fighter for her constituents, for which I respect her. She made an eloquent plea on behalf of Rosyth naval base. The 155 redundancies to which she referred have a simple explanation. It was confirmed in January 1992 that Rosyth naval base would be reduced to a minor war vessel operating base by April 1995. As part of the planned rundown to minor war vessel operating base status, we had, sadly, to announce up to 155 redundancies. There was no deceit about the subject, which was not part of the "Front Line First" study.

The hon. Lady made a powerful caes for the retention of Rosyth naval base, not just in terms of avoiding unemployment among her constituents, but for strategic reasons. I shall consider her speech carefully as part of "Front Line First". There is no great secret or conspiracy—"Front Line First" studies all aspects of defence support activity, of which naval infrastructure is just one of 20.

Studies are being conducted across the naval estate and the study on the rationalisation of facilities at the Rosyth naval base must be seen in that context. No decisions have been taken; nor will they be until after recommendations in the context of the studies as a whole have been presented to Ministers. The hon. Lady asked me six or eight questions about Rosyth naval base. I hope that she will understand that I cannot answer them in the time available, so I shall write to her and answer them.

I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) for the energetic way in which he champions his constituents' interests in difficult times. No other hon. Member writes, telephones or visits my office more often or more effectively. He and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) asked me to pay tribute to the work force at Swan Hunter. I am full of admiration for their professionalism and high standards of workmanship in finishing our type 23 frigates and other MOD work during the past few months of acute disappointment and adversity. Their standards have been impeccable and highly admirable. I confirm that Swan Hunter is welcome to tender for new MOD contracts, although before we can place such a contract we shall need to see new ownership of the yard.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) produced the unusual conspiracy theory that a Devonport dockyard could be taken over by Germans or Arabs. The answer to his question whether that could happen is emphatically no. Appropriate safeguards will be maintained. They will be necessary because the refitting of our nuclear submarines is of the highest importance to our national security interests.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) began his speech by saying that he had no criticism of the Government's policy towards the Royal Navy. That stamps him as an hon. Member with independence of mind.

On the other conspiracy theory stories about Malaysia, various allegations were made, mainly by the hon. Members for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East who seem to think that some special bias was encouraged by the Ministry of Defence towards frigates from Yarrow and away from frigates from Swan Hunter.

The choice of companies to supply equipment and contractual arrangements are matters for the Malaysian Government. Indeed, all defence purchases under the MOU by Malaysia were made for cash, with the customer making the decisions. Export Credits Guarantee Department facilities were not required and there was no question of taxpayers' money financing a series of successful orders for British industry, worth well over £1 billion.

As for the MOD playing a sinister part in that, all we did was to comment on the companies' technical competence, but we did not make a firm recommendation either way. That is entirely in line with our normal practice on such occasions. The choice of Yarrow for that order rested solely with the customer.

I apologise for being unable to answer all the points raised in this debate.

Dr. Reid

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Aitken

I have been cut short and shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he took up two minutes or so of my time, which I could have been using valuably.

May I knock on the head the notion that the Government are drifting and doing nothing on defence procurement? In the nine months since our last Royal Navy debate, we have had a succession of impressive procurement decisions or orders worth well over £1 billion. Those include the important decision to award the landing platform helicopter contract to Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. In January, we announced the decision to purchase 18 new FRS2 Sea Harriers as part of an order worth some £200 million. A few weeks later, I announced the awarding of a contract for the development and production of Sonar 2076, as part of the overall Swiftsure and Trafalgar update programme, worth in excess of £400 million.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that tenders for four single-role minehunters, with an option for three further vessels, were to be issued, as they were in December 1993 on the basis of the "UK-only build". Responses to that invitation to tender are due in April and we expect to place an order later this year. Meanwhile, the Trident programme continues to make good progress and HMS Vanguard, the first submarine to be accepted by the Royal Navy in 1993, proceeded to sea trials and is progressing well.

During the same period, what on earth have the Opposition been doing? The Liberal party's sovereign policy-making body, the federal conference, passed a resolution for a 50 per cent. defence cut. The Labour party passed a resolution by a two-thirds majority—composite resolution No. 49—the effect of which would be to reduce Britain's defence spending by a third, or £7.5 billion. That is the equivalent of removing the whole spend of the Royal Navy. For good measure, the brothers passed composite resolution 48, instructing the next Labour Government to carry out the immediate scrapping of Trident.

If those resolutions show what the Labour party thinks about the Royal Navy, at next year's conference Labour will probably pass another composite resolution banning the politically incorrect singing of "Rule Britannia".

By contrast, the Government believe in a strong and effective Royal Navy whose capability, versatility, flexibility and fire power make it one of the premier naval forces in the world. We have a core capability provided by our aircraft carriers, our nuclear-powered submarines and our amphibious forces. Questions have been asked about our carriers, but under current plans we will continue to maintain three Invincible aircraft carriers and HMS Intrepid.

I have referred elsewhere to the formidable work which our aircraft carriers have been able to do through fully utilising their wide range of capability while stationed in the Adriatic—

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

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