HC Deb 01 February 1996 vol 270 cc1133-216

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

4.2 pm

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)

It is a great privilege and pleasure for me to open the debate on the Royal Navy. As we speak today, the Royal Navy is at work around the world, discharging its many and varied commitments with the dedication and professionalism that is its hallmark.

I should like to open this annual debate by highlighting some of the Royal Navy's achievements since we debated it last year. First is its work in the Adriatic. Two weeks ago, the House paid tribute to the vital contribution made by the British Army in the former Yugoslavia. Today, the House will wish to congratulate the Royal Navy on the immense part that it, too, has played and continues to play.

Our carrier task group, currently led by HMS Illustrious, has made a major contribution to enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia. In September, aircraft from HMS Invincible, which I visited in Portsmouth this week, played a significant role in the highly successful air campaign to deter the Bosnian Serbs from further attacks following their brutal attack on the Sarajevo marketplace. Sea Harrier aircraft from our carriers have flown over 2,600 sorties on, or in preparation for, missions in the area.

Other ships, currently HMS Brazen and HMS Beaver, have been involved in Operation Sharp Guard, the combined NATO/WEU operation to enforce the arms embargo and other sanctions against the former Yugoslavia, in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions. Sharp Guard units have now challenged over 51,000 ships, boarding more than 4,000 of them and diverting more than 1,000 for inspection.

On land, 845 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm has been in Split for over three years, providing vital casualty evacuation and helicopter support for British forces and now for IFOR. Let me take this opportunity to extend my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the three young British service men killed in the tragic land mine incident in Bosnia on Sunday. It has served as a sad reminder of the inherent dangers of the IFOR mission, and of the strength asked of the families who stay behind. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the courage, skill and professionalism of the three young men—and, indeed, all our service men and women who are involved in an operation that offers the best hope for bringing lasting peace to a troubled land.

Elsewhere in the world, the Navy has maintained a UK presence in the Gulf, in the south Atlantic and in the Caribbean. Again this year, the achievements of the West Indies guard ship deserve special mention, not least following the eruption of a volcano on Montserrat on 18 July. HMS Southampton, supported by RFA Oakleaf, provided the Montserrat authorities with much-needed assistance for two months. That included beach surveys, erecting temporary accommodation and flying twice-daily helicopter surveys into the crater to allow scientists to maintain a very close watch on the vents, from as close as 10 ft.

The Navy was also able to help when the southern part of the island had to be evacuated in August, and troops from 42 Commando Royal Marines were deployed to assist with the additional policing burden. Finally, 148 personnel from the Commando Logistics regiment were sent to Antigua for three weeks in September to establish evacuation centres in the event that they might be required—which, happily, they were not.

Hurricane Luis, one of the most severe storms to hit the Caribbean in recent years, also brought work for HMS Southampton and RFA Oakleaf. Southampton was involved in the rescue of 13 Venezuelan coastguards from an isolated island that was in danger of being swamped by huge seas. Luis wreaked particular havoc on Anguilla. Southampton and the trusty RFA were on the scene within hours; work parties immediately set about restoring power and communications, and helped to repair key facilities such as the airport.

The Navy's ability to respond so quickly and decisively to crises around the world—as those examples have shown—underlines the high standard of its training, and the superlative quality of its people.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Royal Navy's ability to intervene around the world, and to project power in the current fluid international situation, is more important than ever? For that purpose, effective amphibious forces are required, including dedicated assault ships. Can my hon. Friend say when the replacements for HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless, the landing platform docks, will be ordered? HMS Fearless, which is now trying to put to sea, is a rust bucket.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I agree about the importance of amphibious operations. I visited HMS Fearless on Tuesday, and I shall say more about it later.

Last year also saw a Royal Navy task group deployment to the far east and the Pacific. As with previous such deployments, Australasia '95 was an outstanding success on many different levels. The Navy was able to renew its links with distant friends and allies. It undertook joint exercises with the Australian and Indian navies and made the first ship visit to New Zealand since 1983. That deployment also provided a tangible demonstration of our continuing commitment to the five-power defence arrangements, and helped to promote British exports in the region.

Closer to home, the Navy has been closely involved in building stronger relations with the countries of central and eastern Europe. Ship visits and joint exercises have helped to break down old barriers and to form new and lasting friendships. In the autumn, 130 Royal Marines were deployed to Romania for mountain training and joint exercises with the Romanian army, and the Royal Marines also led a multinational operation in the Baltic states to train and equip an infantry battalion drawn from the forces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That is regarded as the most successful example of co-operation between NATO, neutral states and former Soviet Union states.

The Royal Navy continues of course to be very busy in our own waters. The fishery protection squadron goes about its vital task of enforcing legislation and ensuring that all fishermen can carry out their lawful business. It provides a vital presence in the Irish box following full Spanish accession to the common fisheries policy.

The Royal Navy also made a huge contribution to the tuna fishery last year. The season passed off peacefully, in marked contrast to the problems encountered in the Bay of Biscay in 1994. By establishing good co-operation with its foreign counterparts on the tuna grounds, and with our fishermen and the industry generally, the Navy helped to ensure that there were no significant incidents involving our vessels during the tuna season, and earned the thanks and respect of our fishermen in the process.

I have described a few of the many tasks undertaken by the Royal Navy, but I have not so far mentioned its most important responsibility: the maintenance of our strategic deterrent—the ultimate guarantee of our independence and security. The Trident system is one of the most sophisticated and challenging programmes this country has ever undertaken. It has been brought in—after 11 and a half years—on time and under the original cost estimate, which is a truly remarkable achievement.

The first two submarines, Vanguard and Victorious, are now in operational service. The third, Vigilant, was launched in October and will shortly embark on contractor's sea trials. Construction of the fourth, Vengeance, is proceeding to plan.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

If it came to the crunch, would the Minister be willing to press the button to fire those nuclear weapons? If those nuclear weapons were fired, what repercussions would it have for our environment?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am conscious of the fact that, in asking that question, the hon. Gentleman is one of 42 Opposition Members who asked us to scrap our entire nuclear deterrent programme. I had the privilege of being on board HMS Victorious to witness her first test firing of an unarmed Trident missile off the east coast of the United States, as part of the submarine's demonstration and shake-down operation.

The exercise was incredibly professionally carried out, and the excellent co-operation between the United States navy and the Royal Navy was very heartening. It was an experience that I shall never forget. The firing went successfully, as did the firing by the submarine's second crew a few weeks later.

If the Labour party had been in power for the past 17 years, no British Minister would have had that experience because, in the 1980s, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) added his name to an advertisement that said: Parliamentary Labour Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament supports the removal of all nuclear weapons from British territory. Indeed, as recently as October last year, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) put his name to an amendment calling for the scrapping of Trident.

The right hon. Member for Sedgefield now says that he was wrong when he signed that advertisement, but the 42 Opposition Members say that he was right then and he is wrong now. However, we know, and the country knows, where the instincts of the Labour party lie—in the direction of disarmament. It may say one thing now, but in power it would do another.

As regards conventional warfare, I would like to say a few words—

Mr. Llew Smith


Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)


Mr. Arbuthnot

I have a lot to get through.

Mr. Smith


Mr. Simpson


Madam Speaker


Mr. Arbuthnot

As regards conventional warfare, I would like to say a few words about each of the Royal Navy's three core capabilities—nuclear-powered attack submarines, aircraft carrier groups and amphibious forces.

First, our fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines—

Mr. Simpson


Mr. Arbuthnot

I shall give way in a few minutes.

Those highly effective vessels can deliver fearsome firepower from forward positions with the benefit of surprise, and conduct vital covert intelligence gathering. Our current Swiftsure and Trafalgar boats are undergoing an extensive upgrade, and we are bringing into service the capable Spearfish heavyweight torpedo, the most advanced of its kind in the world.

For the longer term, we plan to replace the Swiftsure class with batch 2 Trafalgar class submarines. We have decided to proceed on the basis of a design proposed by GEC Marconi, following the evaluation of complex bids from industry. We intend to begin detailed discussions with the firm soon.

Last October, we also announced an order for conventionally armed Tomahawk land attack missiles.

Mr. Simpson

Before the Minister began to talk about conventional missiles, I intended to tell him that I was pleased that he was able to experience the launch of a trial Trident missile. However, has he visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki to see what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a missile? Would he be willing to take responsibility for the scale of human destruction that follows the decision to press that button?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because it confirms the point that I made earlier, which I have also made in several other speeches and at Question Time. The Labour party is dedicated to nuclear disarmament—and that is not all. Let us not forget that the amount of deterrence that we gain from having a nuclear deterrent, at a very low cost compared with the rest of our defence budget, is massive. But the Labour party is essentially a party of disarmers. I am happy to say that I have been to Japan to see some of those areas, and I believe that the importance of a nuclear deterrent has been shown in Europe over the past 50 years—the longest period of peace for many years.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

The Minister mentioned the Government's plan to replace the Swiftsure class submarines. Why did he not make a proper statement about his intentions to the House before Christmas? Why did he sneak the decision out in a faxed letter to me? Why did he not have the courage to come here and make a full statement?

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman made that point on the day the decision was announced. A huge number of procurement decisions have to be announced. The news was good, and there was no question of my sneaking it out. If I had thought that I could get away with making a statement to the House about it, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would have done so. However, I suspect that if I had, he might also have complained. The fact remains that some companies are successful in winning competitions and others are not. There always have to be losers. It is a pity when companies lose, but it has to happen.

Aircraft carriers and their embarked aircraft provide the second core capability, not only for air defence at sea but for projecting power ashore. Operations in the Adriatic have vividly demonstrated the contribution that sea-based air can make.

Our carriers are equipped with the recently updated FA2 Sea Harrier, which has proved its worth over the skies of Bosnia. Following its update and with its advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles and Blue Vixen look-down radar, the Sea Harrier is now one of the best fighters in the theatre. Trials are under way to allow RAF Harrier GR7 aircraft to operate from carriers from the beginning of 1997. That will make use of the GR7's specialist ground attack capability and increase the flexibility and effectiveness of our carrier forces.

The Sea Harrier will be an extremely capable aircraft for many years to come. But given long development and production lead times, we are already considering its replacement in the next century. In December, we signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to participate in the development of a possible successor.

Amphibious forces form the third of the Royal Navy's core capabilities, and I entirely agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). The courage, skill and endurance of the Royal Marines are admired the world over. They are a formidable fighting force; and 3 Commando Brigade, with the Army's 5 Airborne Brigade, will form the heart of the new joint rapid deployment force. The units will train together on a regular basis and will be equipped to form the spearhead of our reaction to any crisis.

In amphibious operations, the Royal Marines rely on specialist amphibious shipping, about which a great deal of nonsense has appeared in press. I can confirm to the House that our amphibious capability is highly effective. This week, I visited HMS Fearless, one of our two landing platform docks, which is currently undergoing maintenance. That was slightly delayed following a minor fire before Christmas, but we are confident that the ship will be able to meet its operational schedule, including joint exercises with the United States in April. She will return to service in a better material state than for several years.

More generally, some have tried to suggest that the UK's wider amphibious capability is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are enhancing the effectiveness of our existing vessels and planning for new, even more powerful ships in the future. Last year saw the launch of the helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean. She is currently fitting out and is due to enter service in 1998. HMS Ocean is the size of one of our aircraft carriers and will carry 800 troops, their equipment and supporting helicopters. As the House knows, we are also in contract negotiations with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. for an order to replace our landing platform docks.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Conservative Members are proud to hear my hon. Friend the Minister's exemplary armed forces procurement record. There is, however, just one exception—the replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. It is 20 years since replacements were first considered, while it is five years since a Minister told me that the replacements would be ordered shortly. The vessels are steam-driven and their equipment is out of date. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that they should be replaced before too long?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I take my hon. Friend's point. That was one of the reasons why I visited HMS Fearless on Tuesday. Despite the fact that there is some old-fashioned equipment on board HMS Fearless, it is ready to do the tasks that we set it. While I hesitate to be repetitive, I must say that I hope that we shall be able to make a decision shortly.

Mr. Wilkinson

Can my hon. Friend ensure that we retain competition, whereby rival yards with comparable capabilities can bid? We do not have Swan Hunter any more—sadly—and in a no acceptable price no contract competition, it may now be hard to drive the price down to keep the costs within the Royal Navy's budget.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend has clearly read my speech, because again that is something that I shall come to in a few minutes.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

I am troubled and concerned—as are many thousands of people in Glasgow and Southampton—about the future of the replacement for type 22 frigates. Does the Minister intend to give any information on the matter?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I shall come to that matter in a moment.

The strategic deterrent and the three core capabilities that I have outlined make the Royal Navy one of the most effective and respected navies in the world. That pre-eminence is underpinned by our escort fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates, which provides vital anti-air and anti-submarine protection for our carriers and amphibious forces and carries out a multitude of other roles. Nine of the modern Duke class type 23 frigates are already in service and one, HMS Richmond, has been accepted from the shipbuilders and is undergoing sea trials. Three more are being constructed and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement on a further order soon.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I am pleased to hear that, but I should like some more information. The Minister must be aware that in Eastleigh, Vosper Thornycroft is an important employer and that the delays in the announcement of the result of the tender for the type 23s, which should have been made before Christmas, are causing much concern to my constituents. Some 1,500 jobs are at stake and the shipyard's forward planning is being adversely affected. Will the Minister give an idea of when the decision will be announced?

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman has been to see me to make his points. I have also spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) about that important matter. We hope to be able to make a decision in the next few weeks. It is important to get it right, for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman.

It is important to remember that our defence capability, including the number of frigates and other naval ships that we are able to order, depends on having a sufficiently robust defence budget—as, under this Government, it has always been and will always continue to be. That would be undermined by some of the proposals of the Opposition parties. Having said that, we hope to make an announcement on the type 23 frigates very soon.

Mr. Murphy

This will be a matter for the following debate, but does the Minister accept that even a delay of some weeks could affect Southampton and Glasgow? There are 1,100 jobs in Glasgow and 1,500 in Southampton dependent on the decision. Weeks cost jobs, and those areas cannot afford to lose any more jobs.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I understand that. It is very important to make the right decision.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Given that the Government and the Ministry of Defence are in some discomfort over the negotiations with Lord Weinstock on the procurement of submarines and landing platform docks and that there is no other facility available to offer competition, does my hon. Friend realise the enormous U-turn that would arise if, in consequence of decisions taken on the procurement of frigates for the Royal Navy, the Government were effectively to end all competition in the United Kingdom by driving Vosper Thornycroft out of business? That would not be the action that one would expect of a Conservative Government committed to competition.

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend refers to a discomfort that, I hope he will forgive me for saying, I do not feel. The NAPNOC—no acceptable price no contract—method of producing acceptable prices for the MOD has been very successful. I shall come to that shortly.

Helicopters are a key element for today's escort vessels. The Royal Navy's Lynx mark 3 helicopters are being upgraded to mark 8 standard by introducing a fully computerised tactical system and improved sensors. From 1998 onwards, we shall be adding to the Royal Navy's helicopters with the introduction of the highly effective EH101 Merlin. The first Royal Navy production aircraft was delivered in December 1995 and is undergoing trials and evaluations. To modernise the Royal Navy's air defence systems, we are also participating in the common new generation frigate programme. In the next century, that will replace the anti-air cover currently provided by our type 42 destroyers. We are making good progress in discussions with our French and Italian collaborative partners on both the ship as a whole and its principal anti-air missile system. We hope to announce the outcome of those discussions to the House in the near future.

The Navy depends critically for its support on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The Adriatic is a fine example. RFA vessels, currently Olwen and Fort Grange, operate as an integral part of our carrier task group. RFA Resource is now in her second two-year tour in Split, providing unfailing support to British forces deployed in theatre.

As part of our continuing commitment to the RFA, I am pleased to announce that tomorrow we are issuing an invitation to tender for the design and build of up to two auxiliary oilers. The ships are planned to replace the aging 0 class fleet tankers. They will be double-hulled, to conform with the latest international regulations in respect of oil pollution, and capable of replenishing front-line ships at sea. They will be built largely to commercial standards, with some military features, which will include a flight deck and hangar for one helicopter.

I should also like to mention the role of merchant shipping, which is used to augment the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Our policy is to charter merchant ships on the international market to provide the greatest range of ships at a competitive price, thus ensuring value for money for the British taxpayer. British shipowners have the opportunity to offer their vessels for Ministry of Defence business. We believe that a substantial part of any shipping requirement can be met in that way. The deployment to Bosnia in recent weeks has been an excellent example of how we can put tens of thousands of tonnes of equipment and stores into theatre for thousands of personnel, by using the international market.

Modern and effective front-line forces require an efficient and responsive support. Last year, following "Front Line First", we announced the redeployment of minor war vessels from Rosyth naval base, which will become a Royal Navy support establishment by April this year. I want to pay tribute to the loyalty of the work force at Rosyth, who have maintained their traditionally high standards of performance throughout this difficult period.

I want today to restate the MOD's commitment to assisting with the regeneration of the Rosyth area. Last year, we selected Rosyth 2000 Ltd., a consortium of leading Scottish businesses, as the preferred bidder for the Rosyth naval base site. We are now in negotiation with Rosyth 2000 and are seeking to ensure that the decommissioning of the naval base, and the regeneration of the area through private sector initiatives, are managed in such a way as to achieve a smooth transition from defence to productive civil use.

I should also like to mention our plans for the sale of the royal dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth. We received tenders from Devonport Management Ltd. for Devonport and from Babcock International Group for Rosyth, and I have since been negotiating with them. I regret the continuing uncertainty for the work forces. I hope to receive recommendations within the next few weeks and to announce final proposals as soon as possible thereafter, allowing for full consultation with the remaining MOD employees in both dockyards.

At Devonport, we are also in negotiation with the consortium forming Devonport Management Ltd. for the design and construction of the facilities for refitting nuclear-powered submarines. We hope to make an announcement in a similar time scale. Our plans remain for Devonport to be the only nuclear refitting dockyard in the future. Recent progress in the negotiations has been encouraging. The facilities are planned to be ready in time to meet the refit plan for the Vanguard class, which is programmed to start at around the turn of the century.

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I welcome the Minister's statement that an announcement will be made in the next few weeks about privatisation of the dockyards in both Rosyth and Devonport. But does he not realise that there is some cynicism among Opposition Members and a belief that this is a sort of Whitehall farce, because we have sat here so many times over the past two and a half years and heard other Ministers make exactly the same assertion?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I have said before, and I say again, that it is an extremely complicated and important development. It is essential to get it right. The negotiations are protracted and difficult, and that reflects the complexity of the issue.

I shall say something about our defence procurement policy in general and then speak more specifically about warship building.

The Government have today replied to the report of the joint Defence and Trade and Industry Committees on "Aspects of Defence Procurement and Industrial Policy". Our response will be published by the Committees in the usual way. I do not want to pre-empt it, but I should like to set out briefly the main conclusions of our separate review of defence procurement policy, which was under way before the Committees launched their inquiry.

The background is the need to deliver to our service men and women the battle-winning equipment that they need in a cost-effective way, to the benefit of the taxpayer. The rigorous pursuit of value for money has been a great success for our forces, for the taxpayer and for British industry. We must also ensure that our supplier base remains efficient and competitive and can meet our immediate and longer-term needs. We consulted industry through the National Defence Industries Council as part of our review. That continuing consultation will help us develop the best procurement policy for Britain.

We have drawn three key conclusions from our review. First, value for money, through competition, must remain the cornerstone of our policy, and it must take full account of through-life costs.

Secondly, the MOD will, with the Department of Trade and Industry, take more systematic account of defence industrial factors in our procurement decisions. We shall carefully consider the balance between off-the-shelf procurement and collaborative or national development of equipment, to ensure that we can maintain our competition policy in the short and longer term, meet our operational needs without unacceptable compromise, support the equipment that we have, and use our industrial resources to take full advantage of opportunities for collaboration.

Thirdly, we shall continue to pursue cost-effective collaboration. Much has been achieved, but we believe that collaboration, especially in Europe, will be increasingly important in future. That is why we are pursuing the concept of a European armaments agency and why we wish to participate in the Franco-German armaments structure that came into being at the start of 1996. In addition, the United Kingdom defence industry has important relationships in the United States, and there are good opportunities to build on those.

I am confident that that development of our procurement policy will be welcomed by the House and by the UK defence industry.

I shall now speak about the warship building industry. The Government recognise the benefits of preserving competition within industry wherever that is practicable, but there has been overcapacity in the warship yards, and consolidation has continued in the past 12 months. Swan Hunter's Wallsend facility has been sold by the receivers, bringing to an end Tyneside's strong tradition of supplying quality ships to the Royal Navy. This year, GEC Marine has taken over VSEL, bringing two warship builders under one management. Against that background, we have sought new ways to introduce competition.

One option has been to supplement the traditional competition between yards by encouraging established defence contractors to compete as prime contractors. That is already working in practice. VSEL teamed with Kvaerner Govan for the construction of HMS Ocean. The hull has been built under subcontract at Kvaerner's commercial yard at Govan and the fitting out of military systems will be undertaken at VSEL's Barrow-in-Furness yard. Similar arrangements may apply to the auxiliary oiler competition, in which at least one of the invitations will be issued to a team of prime contractor and commercial shipbuilder.

Competition policy has proved successful; the price that we pay for ships for the Royal Navy has reduced considerably in real terms. It has also brought the benefit of innovative designs—for example, in the batch 2 Trafalgar class competition. Where competition is not possible, it has become our practice to price non-competitive contracts at the outset. That no acceptable price no contract strategy has been adopted in the negotiations with VSEL for the replacement of HMS Fearless and Intrepid. Within that framework, we encourage our contractors to adopt modern procurement strategies, such as a competitive "make or buy" approach to subcontracting, and to use the latest techniques, such as computer-aided design.

I have ranged widely in my speech and touched on the Royal Navy's achievements, its equipment and its supporting infrastructure, but in summary I wish to say only that the United Kingdom has a first-class Navy. It is a service with an unrivalled tradition and honourable history, but it is also a modern, capable and formidable fighting force that is rightly eyed with envy and respected by others. The Navy is at work around the clock and around the globe and it remains as crucial to the nation today as it has always been. In short, it is a Navy of which the House and the country can be truly proud.

4.40 pm
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

It is extremely fortunate for the House that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is leading the debate, because it seems that he will be extremely busy for the next few weeks making decisions about the type 23 replacements and, of course, the royal dockyards.

What troubles the Opposition—it might be a matter for those responsible for the business of the House rather than for the Ministry of Defence—is that there is only one occasion during the parliamentary year when we debate the Navy. I should have thought that it would have been better to delay the annual debate for a few weeks so that hon. Members from all parties who have deep concerns about procurement could speak in the debate.

I have read some earlier naval debates. The Minister was right when he said that the Navy has been extremely flexible over the past five to 10 years—it has had to cope with different situations around the world. Twenty years ago, of course, the Navy had to deal with problems east of Suez, and 10 years ago there was the problem of the east and of communism. All of that has gone, and I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will want to pay tribute to the skill and determination of the men and women of the Royal Navy over those years.

Threats still exist, of course. The Minister touched on them. There is still uncertainty in parts of eastern Europe and there are problems in the middle east. Those of us who were fortunate enough to listen to the Prime Minister of Israel yesterday realise how important the peace process is in that part of the world. There is also the staggering growth in the far east. The possible threats remain, not just to this country, but to peace and security on the planet.

The Minister was right to draw the House's attention to the activities of the Royal Navy in the West Indies, the Falklands, the Persian Gulf and, until 1997, Hong Kong. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree with the tribute that the Minister paid to the Royal Navy for its activities in the former Yugoslavia. It has played its part in Operation Sharp Guard to enforce the United Nations embargo on arms and the trade sanctions.

I want to pay a personal tribute to the Royal Marines for their work in Northern Ireland. For six months, I was an Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, and I realise the great courage that our forces needed to play their role there. The same is true in respect of the Royal Navy's coastal activities. Some weeks ago, we had our debate on the Army. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) was, I believe, unjustly criticised for his opposition to certain Government policies for the Army. It is important to put on record what we feel our role in opposition should be. It is not to attack those who serve in our armed forces, but to criticise and bring to account the Ministers responsible for the defence policies of the United Kingdom.

It will not be too long before Conservative Members have the same role as we have now, and they must realise that they will have to criticise whatever policies a Labour Government will present. I have to say, however, that, in the past few weeks, the Government have seemed more like an Opposition than a Government.

There have been dramatic changes in world politics during the past few years. Any party that forms the Government has to respond to those changes, but we have always charged that the Government's response has been badly thought out. We believe that, although the cuts that have been made might have been necessary in certain instances, they have not been defence led. Rather, they have been led by the needs of the Treasury. I fear that, occasionally, the Government's policy has been dominated by adherence to a too rigid doctrine of free market forces, which does not always go with the Navy's needs.

There has been an unstructured rundown of the Royal Navy, involving ships, submarines, people, dockyards, the staff college at Greenwich and supply depots. No one would say that defence in 1996 requires the same resources as it required in 1986, but we are saying that there is a need for a proper strategic review of how defence is handled. We need consider only the redundancies—in July 1995, an admiral, 460 officers, 2,000 ratings and 130 Royal Marines were made redundant. By the turn of the century, the Royal Navy's strength will be only 44,000.

In 1993, the Select Committee on Defence report stated: There has been no period of financial calm: just the opposite. No plans seem to survive the next public expenditure round. Every activity is reviewed, and revised again and again. The Select Committee later stated: For many service personnel and civilian employees, the prospect of redundancy hardly denotes stability … Market testing, which has barely affected most of the major centres of MoD civilian employment, is gathering pace, importing a further element of turbulence." I understand that the Royal Navy has started its own internal study to see whether it can still carry out its traditional duties, following the defence cuts. Sir Jock Slater was quoted in The Daily Telegraph—not normally a friend of the Labour party—on 3 October 1995 as saying: We have to make absolutely certain that if the crunch were to come then we can regenerate … Overall our people are pretty stretched now. He went on to say that he was concerned about the effect that the reforms were having on morale and that the changes had increased work loads and eroded job security. He continued: There are no two ways about that at all … I am concerned about the effect it has on our people. I have no doubt that both sides of the House agree with the Labour party's main principles. First, we believe that NATO is the cornerstone of our defence policy—it was a Labour Foreign Secretary who helped to set NATO up in the late 1940s. Secondly, we believe that the United Nations should be supported—I am sure that the Government agree—especially in its humanitarian activities. Thirdly, we believe that we should have the resources necessary for the effective defence of our country. Those are the three planks of the Labour party's defence policy and I am sure that the Government do not disagree with any of them. However, we differ fundamentally on how to achieve those aims.

Time and again, the Government have derided our ideas for a strategic defence review. The French and the Americans have had one. We had them in the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and even in the early 1980s. Why cannot we have one now that the world has changed so dramatically? I am not alone in calling for a strategic review. Anthony Preston, the editor-in-chief of a magazine called "Naval Forces", has said: The time has come, not for blindly continuing to cut the budget, but for the logical review of the Navy…What I am worried about is just hacking away at the foliage, without working out what the job of the Navy is. The Sunday Times, another paper usually friendly to the Conservative party, said in 1993: instead of conducting a new defence review, which common sense now demands and the armed forces want, the government has hidden its defence policy behind a cloak of secrecy so impenetrable that nobody knows what it is or what the taxpayer actually gets for £24 billion a year… A defence review would be an opportunity to stop this death by a thousand cuts that is destroying what is still one of the finest armed forces in the world. We would all agree with that.

The surface fleet is half the size it was a quarter of a century ago but, as the Minister admitted in his speech, our commitments have not changed particularly. We still have commitments in the Caribbean, the south Atlantic, and the middle east, and we are now committed in the Adriatic, although we are losing Hong Kong—it represents the only change in this area. We are told that the operation is very tight—

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

Is the burden of the hon. Gentleman's remarks the idea that the Royal Navy has too many tasks to conduct? Is he saying that his defence review would lead to a reduction in the tasks that the Royal Navy undertakes?

Mr. Murphy

Not at all. I have said that resources must match commitments. I remind the Minister that when his party was in opposition, one of his predecessors, Sir Ian Gilmour, was asked the same question by the Labour party. He replied that it was only when the Conservatives were in government that they would be in a proper position to look at the details of a strategic defence review. We cannot conduct such a review until we have all the necessary intelligence given us by the various civil servants and by the armed services themselves. What we can say is that, over the past five years, the Government have had every possible opportunity to conduct a defence review and have failed miserably to do so.

Perhaps the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will tell us, when he winds up, what is to happen to Britannia. I understand from another Conservative newspaper this week, the Daily Mail, that the national lottery might pay for a new vessel. I am sure that the Minister will scotch that rumour later on.

We are pleased that the Government have retained the fishery protection and hydrographic services, but we are troubled about the Royal Fleet Auxiliary—there is some doubt among the experts as to whether we have the answer right.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) will raise the question of the Royal Marines school of music. If he does not, I certainly will. Many of us were disturbed that it should have been moved from Deal. We find it particularly worrying that it is to be housed in temporary accommodation, bearing in mind all the trials with which that group of men and women have had to put up over the years. Temporary accommodation is not a good solution.

Will the Minister to make it absolutely clear—my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will speak about the detail—what is to happen to the Royal Naval college at Greenwich? I am delighted to say that the Defence Committee, comprising Members from both sides of the House, is to take evidence at Greenwich in the weeks ahead. I hope that we will be given an assurance this week that there will be no repeat of the Admiralty arch fiasco. It did nothing for the reputation of the Ministry of Defence or its Ministers.

The Minister touched on the royal dockyards. My party has a two-dockyard solution to the problem. I should like now to elaborate on what I said earlier in an intervention, and what I shall say applies also to the type 23 frigate replacements. The perpetual delays emanating from the MOD are bad from a number of points of view: the first is that the House of Commons is not given a proper opportunity to debate the decisions. Decisions given in answers to written parliamentary questions are not the same as debates in the House.

As I said before, this debate should have been an ideal opportunity for the Minister to appear before us and for us to ask him questions about the replacements for the frigates and the future of the two royal dockyards. Someone told me today that MOD no longer stands for Ministry of Defence—it stands for Ministry of Delay. I am sure that the thousands of people who need decisions to be made for the sake of maintaining their jobs in Glasgow and Southampton are deeply troubled by the fact that the Minister can give us no information about the replacements for the frigates.

An answer given to a Conservative Member this week by the Minister states that he is considering a batch of frigates "of up to three". What does that mean—one, two or three? The differences are clearly enormous. If only one ship is to be built, thousands of jobs will be put at risk if the others are not built too. Moreover, we need to know when the ships will be built by—the turn of the century, next century? The answers are vital, and I hope that we shall have a proper opportunity to debate them in the weeks ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) will touch on procurement matters later if he catches the occupant of the Chair's eye. The Defence Manufacturers Association recently gave evidence to the joint Trade and Industry and Defence Committees as follows: Sadly, the MOD's procurement policies have, until now, done little of a positive nature to support industry's chances of retaining a competitive edge". That was said in 1995. We are pleased, however, that the Minister said today that there will be more co-operation with our European partners—that is indeed good news. I only hope that the Secretary of State agrees.

My hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Motherwell, North recently referred in this place to the considerable number of cases of financial mismanagement in the MOD. They ought to be put on record, not least because the Secretary of State told his party conference last year: Every day, every week, every month we will convert waste into weapons. Well, he has gone about things the other way round: weapons have been made into waste, and the waste of money in particular has been staggering.

Eight hundred million pounds has been overspent on Trident construction facilities at Faslane; £6 million has been spent needlessly on consultants' fees for MOD housing plans; £8 million has gone on schemes to privatise the royal dockyards. But all these pale into insignificance compared with the £261 million squandered on refitting warships which are then sold off at rock bottom prices or even used for target practice. HMS Andromeda was refitted at a cost of £27 million and then sold for £65,000. HMS Battleaxe was refitted in July 1994 at a cost of £13 million—only two years ago—and sold by the MOD for an unknown sum—

Mr. Arbuthnot

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets his figures from, but I can assure him that the prices of the ships that the MOD sells are commercially confidential. The £65,000 figure he quotes is completely wrong.

It is also important to remember the significant change in the defence climate of the entire world when the cold war ended. A number of ships were going through their refit at the time, and it became plain that they were no longer necessary for our defence requirements. It was right to dispose of them, and we shall continue to dispose of such ships. Disposal generates significant sums which are then available for spending on new ships. Often, refitting for ocverseas owners provides a great deal of work for British shipyards.

Mr. Murphy

The figures are not made up; they come from parliamentary answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. We knew about the changes in world politics well before 1994. We are asking: why refit all these ships when we know that we are not going to use them? Had there been a proper defence review, none of this might have happened.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

I know that my hon. Friend does not have time to watch much television, but did he see the "Spitting Image" programme last Sunday? It referred to the Polaris submarine HMS Renown, which was refitted in 1993 at a cost of £155 million. Since then, it has been left in dock awaiting decommissioning at a cost of £29 million per annum. Does that not add weight to his point?

Mr. Murphy

I fear that I did not see "Spitting Image" last Sunday, but I saw it the week before and I was much taken with the uniform worn by the Secretary of State for Defence. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North has also raised the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) makes so well.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The refit of HMS Renown—which took five years—was finished in 1992 and the ship then went out on three operational patrols. It was later decided that it was no longer needed because of the end of the cold war and because of the significant success of the Trident programme, which is under budget and on time.

Mr. Murphy

Perhaps the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be able to enlighten us later about the troublesome question of the four unwanted Upholder class submarines. We understand that some sort of deal has been reached with the Canadian Government about training facilities for both the Army and the RAF at Goose bay. Can the Minister tell us what prices we are likely to get for our submarines and to what use we are putting the Goose bay facilities, which many people believe are under-utilised?

The Reserve Forces Bill is currently in the other place and I assume that it will be introduced in this House in the next few weeks—if the Government can decide what to put in it. The Evening Standard—another newspaper that is friendly to the Government—recently described the Reserve Forces Bill as one of the sloppiest and worst-drafted pieces of work in living memory". The Government tabled 200 amendments after the Bill was printed and before its Committee stage in the House of Lords. We shall not contest the legislation, but we hope that it will be better drafted when it comes to the House of Commons.

I believe that the Royal Naval Reserve has probably suffered more than any other reserve force during the past few years. It has only 3,000 men and women and 13 units. Eleven units have been closed, there is only one unit in Scotland and there is none in Yorkshire and Humberside. RNR ships have been lost also. We must offer worthwhile training at sea and proper command experience opportunities to our Royal Naval Reserve officers.

The complete loss of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service in 1993 was particularly disturbing. We lost 2,700 volunteers and there are now fewer opportunities—nothing like those that exist in the Territorial Army—for men and women to serve as ratings in the Royal Navy. The Government must address that problem.

I pay tribute to the Maritime Voluntary Service, which has been formally constituted as a national training organisation and is a registered charity. It continues to grow, and shore premises and afloat billets have been obtained with assistance from a wide variety of organisations which recognise the importance of maritime skills. There are 50 units around our coast and its volunteers train to a very high standard. I am sure that the House will join me in supporting the MVS and in wishing it every possible success.

The sea cadets and the reserves link communities throughout the country to the armed forces and we are grateful to them for providing that essential connection. I shall make a constituency point and pay special tribute to the TS Kittiwake in Cwmbran. It took part in the recent VE and VJ day ceremonies and, like many such units all over the country, it provides marvellous opportunities for young men and women—including employment opportunities in the Royal Navy later.

I read today in Hansard that the Pay Services Directorate has been established. The Armed Forces Bill, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North has responsibility on behalf of the Opposition, deals with personnel matters, but I shall touch briefly on the subject of pay in the Royal Navy. The 1992 Tory manifesto said: Our Forces deserve the excellent pay and conditions we have secured for them". There has been much to-ing and fro-ing in the Chamber this afternoon about saying one thing and doing another. The Tory manifesto said that, but this is what the Government have done: levels of pay for higher ranks have increased, but pay for lower ranks has fallen substantially in relation to average wages. The figures for average earnings reveal that, from the period 1979 to 1995, admirals' pay has risen by 12.3 per cent., leading seamen's pay has risen by 5 per cent. and able seamen's pay has decreased by 15.4 per cent. The Government say one thing and do another.

The biggest problem that we face—the Minister referred to it in some detail, as did the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers)—is the Royal Navy's inability to maintain its existing operations. That is extremely worrying. It is highly unlikely that we could mount another Falklands campaign, as we no longer have the necessary sealift capability. We are told—we were not informed of it officially—that, last year, the Ministry of Defence directorate of operational capability conducted a "paper exercise" to ascertain whether this country could mount an amphibious operation similar to the Falklands campaign. It allegedly found weaknesses in our sealift capability.

The Merchant Navy has declined drastically—a fact which concerned the Defence Committee. It found that the number of militarily useful ships has decreased by 16 per cent. since 1992. The number of British general cargo vessels has halved since 1986 and the number of ro-ro ferries has decreased by a third. In 1982, 51,000 people served in our Merchant Navy: today the figure is 17,000 and it is estimated to fall to 4,000 by 2010. Fifty-four ships were sent to the Falklands, but Britain sent only 11 to the Gulf, while France sent 27. Many of the British ships that were sent are manned by foreign crews, which causes some problems. For example, Japanese crews refused to enter the Gulf in 1992 and India withdrew its nationals from merchant vessels which were used in the Falklands campaign. The Chamber of Shipping recently said: It is now a fact that our armed forces rely on the willingness of the commercial market, the willingness of foreign owners, the willingness of foreign crews to provide the much vaunted flexibility and mobility of our armed forces rather than British owners and British seamen.

Mr. Soames

I know that the hon. Gentleman, like a rather large pheasant, will not be diverted from his flight path. We all share some concerns about the flagging of British ships and regret that there are not as many of them as before. However, British forces have just completed the largest deployment of troops to Europe since the last war. That was performed in a spectacularly successful and orderly fashion without any difficulties whatsoever. It was highly effective and extremely efficient. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the most important criterion for the deployment of our troops abroad?

Mr. Murphy

I am glad that the Minister referred to pheasants. One of the reasons why I did not see the Secretary of State for Defence on the "Spitting Image" programme last Sunday is that I was eating pheasant. They tell me that it is good for the figure.

As to the Minister's reference to sealift, we accept that efficiency and effectiveness are important. However, we must not forget that we have a duty to try to ensure that our Merchant Navy is up to scratch and can be used in those circumstances. We must remember that foreign ships and crews cannot be as reliable as our British Merchant Navy in many respects. It is not good to have to rely on other countries because the Merchant Navy has declined so drastically.

The Minister said that the Ministry of Defence borrowed two United States military transport vehicles for operations in Bosnia. Not one British ship was used to ferry equipment; we even used a ship that was registered in Luxembourg —a country which, as hon. Members will know, has no coast.

Last year, the MOD chartered 70 vessels for Bosnia. Only 15 were British and the rest came from Panama, Malta, Ukraine, Latvia and heaven knows where else. It is important to give credence to the idea that there is a future for the Merchant Navy. Part of that future lies in its relationship with the Royal Navy and its ability to help the Navy out.

Ministers will know, because their admirals will tell them, that the future of the Royal Navy is in what the technicians call littoral warfare, in which the three services operate together in task groups of helicopters, carriers and other assault ships near enemy coasts. That expeditionary role requires proper amphibious forces and equipment. The Minister is right to say that no one can question the excellent ability of, for example, the Royal Marines.

The Minister did not answer the questions that were put to him by his hon. Friends. What is happening to our aging and rusting landing ships is important. The House was told this week by the Minister that replacements for HMS Fearless and Intrepid would have to wait, not a few weeks this time, but until around the turn of the century.

We were told in another answer this week that HMS Intrepid was last at sea in 1990. That is almost six years ago. The Daily Telegraph recently reported that a major exercise for NATO in May could well be cancelled due to problems getting HMS Fearless to sea because the entire bulkhead had rusted away. A few weeks ago, Defence News quoted a defence source as saying of Intrepid: If it is ever possible to get her moving, she could only now be used for transport; certainly not amphibious operations … We continue to pour new wine into old bottles and it is a terrible waste of money".

Mr. Arbuthnot

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to my speech, he would have heard me say that all of that is not true.

Mr. Murphy

I understand that, but I must tell the Minister that there is considerable disagreement and unease—not only on my part, but among Conservative Members who represent coastal constituencies that are involved in these matters—about the replacement of those ships and their seaworthiness. These are important matters because littoral warfare will be the Royal Navy's new role in the coming century.

The United States is exploring what it calls co-operative engagement. It was stated clearly in the debate on the Army that the United Kingdom leads Europe in relation to the allied rapid reaction force. Why cannot we, with our naval history and experience, lead Europe in naval co-operation as well? Why cannot we be the link between the United States and Europe in naval matters? One of the reasons is that the Secretary of State—he has gone now—is no friend to Europe. Surely even he realises that co-operation in Europe and in NATO is the way ahead, but it has been seriously jeopardised by cuts and the lack of a proper long-term plan.

Our Navy must be prepared and resourced for its new role. There must be a proper strategic defence review for the Navy and all the armed forces. As politicians, we must not let the Navy down in this new chapter of its history. Like all hon. Members, I agree with the Minister that the Royal Navy is still viewed with envy across the globe, and that the safety and stability of the British people, if I might paraphrase Kipling, still depends on uniforms that guard us while we sleep.

5.13 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I should like to echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement made in opening the debate, when he expressed the nation's admiration and gratitude to the Royal Navy for its work not only in situations of military danger but in dealing with natural disasters such as those that have occurred in the Caribbean. As I represent a constituency with a considerable number of naval families resident within it, I should add to his congratulations and mention the admiration that one must also have for the families of those who serve in the Royal Navy. The sailor can serve at sea with reasonable confidence and good morale only if he knows that his family understands the responsibilities of his work and recognises the pressures that it places on him.

The Minister mentioned the work of HMS Southampton in the Caribbean. The crew of that ship were involved in extremely important humanitarian operations, but they were not the only ones who were inconvenienced. It had been expected that there would be rest and recreation in Florida during the ship's deployment and the wives, at their own cost, had arranged to visit their loved ones. That all had to be cancelled, however, due to the situation which arose in the Caribbean. It is important to remember the role of the families when we praise the armed forces.

Whenever one speaks about the Royal Navy or the armed forces generally, it is a truism to say that we live in uncertain times. One point on which I agreed with the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) was his comment that he felt that we ought to seek stability and certainty, in so far as that is possible in view of the problems with which the armed forces are designed to deal. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in his reply, will manage to settle some of the uncertainties that have beset hon. Members on both sides of the House in relation to some of the issues that the Ministry of Defence faces.

My hon. Friends made it clear in earlier interventions just how strongly they feel about the replacements for the aging assault ships. I accept the assurances of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement that we shall be able to meet our obligations in the coming exercises. However, no hon. Member can have any doubt that we must develop our amphibious capacity in such a way that we can supplement HMS Ocean with dedicated assault ships. That must be done as soon as possible.

I do not expect the Minister to change his statement about timing, but I ask him—as I asked his predecessor a year ago—to give us an assurance that we are talking about two replacement assault ships for the two existing ships, rather than one ship in addition to the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. That assurance would be a great comfort to us and a part of the stability that we seek.

I should also like an assurance in relation to the replacement order for the new type 23 frigates. We all know that the companies tendering for the order have been asked to tender on the basis of building one, two or three ships. It does not require any great knowledge of shipbuilding to recognise that if the Navy requires three type 23 frigates it will be cheaper to order three at one time rather than one or two now and one or two more at a later stage after a separate negotiation.

The tender prices that have been placed before the MOD run only to March this year. It is therefore important that we can be assured that the decision will be taken within, literally, the next few weeks—in February—and that the decision will be to order three frigates. That would give the MOD flexibility to place the orders in a way that deals with the problem of maintaining jobs in the warship-building industry, which the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman raised. That would also help in relation to the important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) raised about the need to maintain competition in price setting for vessels in this country.

It may be that the sheer size of HMS Ocean, which was a one-off ship, limited the opportunity for competition, but in regard to frigates I remind my hon. Friend that there is capacity on the south coast of England to build ships in steel that would be competitive in price, quality and delivery date. That potential would retain for the Ministry the opportunity to obtain competitive prices for vessels as they are required.

The case for Vosper Thornycroft is unanswerable. That company has seized opportunities in overseas markets year in and year out and is an example to other yards. It should be recognised as a highly successful shipbuilding operation that requires serious consideration when orders are placed for the three frigates.

I said earlier that families are an essential part of the structure of the Royal Navy and help to maintain morale. I should like to comment on a particular group of those serving within the fleet, both at sea and on shore, for whom we should express our admiration and whose career structure should be improved. I am talking about the women who serve within the Royal Navy. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will no doubt recall my questions on that matter last year, although I shall not deal with them in detail. He reminded us that 36 Royal Navy ships and five auxiliaries have been converted to include facilities for women, and there are now more than 1,300 berths for female sailors. That provides an opportunity for the Royal Navy to make better use of the skills and qualities of women sailors at sea.

One problem is that the ranks at which women serve at sea are not commensurate with their potential to operate in command positions. My hon. Friend replied to my Questions 108 and 109 at columns 354–55 on 13 March 1995, that no fewer than 97 per cent. of commissioned officers, petty officers and ratings have served at sea. That is not surprising as men join the Navy to go to sea. That is what sailors do. However, only 45 per cent. of women sailors ever been to sea, so 55 per cent. have no service at sea. That is a loss of quality serving sailors at sea because there is still a tendency to see women's duties as administrative and supportive and not at the sharp end of the fleet.

Mr. Soames

I applaud entirely the point that my hon. Friend is making and can reassure him that last week I had the great pleasure of visiting flag officer sea training operations. I spent the day on HMS Montrose, where I had the privilege of watching the first woman qualified senior navigator in the Royal Navy navigate the ship under the most difficult and testing circumstances—and she did a wholly admirable job.

Mr. Griffiths

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. My purpose in raising the matter was to seek exactly such an assurance. However, we should be clear that only 25 per cent. of female sailors at commander rank have ever served at sea, as have 45 per cent. of those at lieutenant commander rank and 50 per cent. of those at sub-lieutenant or midshipman rank. My hon. Friend has made it clear that there is no reason to believe that women are not capable of carrying out command roles at sea.

The way in which women are seen on board ship depends on the rank at which they serve. When young women ratings face what is perhaps not serious harassment, but which may cause problems that they would like to discuss with someone else, they feel less able to complain if the senior female officer aboard the ship is ranked no higher than a sub-lieutenant. If there were senior women officers on board to whom such matters could be referred, any problems could be dealt with quickly without becoming the subject of formal complaints. Indeed, they probably would not occur at all if the circumstances that my hon. Friend described on HMS Montrose were more widespread. We should make every use of the skills and qualities of the women who serve in the Navy.

At present, morale in the fleet is high. When one talks to those serving in the Royal Navy on shore and at sea, there is a feeling that the Navy is performing an important task in carrying out our commitments in Bosnia. It is doing well and is proud of what it is doing. The fleet does not welcome the fact that it is operating in an area where there was warfare, but it welcomes the fact that it is operational, active and doing the job for which it was designed. Those of us who represent naval ports have every reason to echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement when he expressed admiration and support for the fleet and its sailors.

5.27 pm
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who made many excellent and pertinent points. I am also pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who made an excellent speech. I join the Minister and others in paying tribute to the Royal Navy and the commitment and loyalty of its service and civilian personnel, who strive to maintain its position as a world leader. However, I wish that the Government would do more to demonstrate their loyalty and commitment to those people.

As has been mentioned, there has been further delay and indecision in the past 12 months. The Government are constantly saying one thing and doing another. Ministers have promised announcements in August, September and November and then before Christmas, but the saga continues. I quote Admiral Sir Benjamin Bathurst's comments about the defence costs study: I am conscious, of course, that these changes were not without their downside for some of our people … Many were, and perhaps still are, exposed to turbulence and uncertainty. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North also made that point.

Mr. Soames

Like the hon. Lady, I have great admiration for Admiral Sir Benjamin Bathurst. In the context of the admiral's wise words, which she quoted. he also said that the storm may be over, but inevitably turbulence—the swell—will continue.

Ms Squire

I thank the Minister for his intervention. I shall quote the admiral again during my speech. In Rosyth, Devonport, Glasgow, Southampton and many other places, there seems still to be one hell of a swell that is affecting so many people's lives.

I am sure that it will come as no surprise when I say that I plan to devote most of my speech to Rosyth, the dockyards generally and the issues of concern to them. I appreciate, of course, what the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said about Rosyth and Devonport. Unfortunately, however, his remarks did not bring much comfort or certainty for the yards' prospects.

As for the Rosyth naval base, I appreciate that much work still needs to be done to try to ensure a seamless transfer of the personnel, as well as the site and its facilities, to Rosyth 2000. I welcomed the decision when it was made. I appreciate the Minister's efforts and willingness to address the issues, and to meet yet again myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) next week to have a further discussion.

It is my experience, however, and that of the people at the naval base, that others have not been quite so helpful or willing. It seems that the pace of the land agency with responsibilities for defence establishments varies between go slow or stop when it comes to trying to facilitate economic regeneration and progression. I shall be delighted if the agency proves me wrong in the next few weeks.

I pay tribute, however, to many of those who have been involved as the base transfers to become a supportive establishment. I pay tribute, of course, to all the personnel at the base, to the councils involved, to private enterprise and to the Scottish Office. I congratulate them on their efforts. I thank the Minister for once again commending the service and loyalty to their country of all those who have served and are serving at Rosyth naval base.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the men and women who have served at RAF Pitreavie, both in the naval service and in the RAF. The station finally closed its doors this week as its operations were transferred.

Is it still planned to transfer the naval base and its facilities to commercial operations on 1 April? There should be a definite timetable to allow other decisions to be made to facilitate the planning process. I appreciate that there may be continuing difficulties, but surely it should be possible to make enabling arrangements to achieve the seamless transfer that we all know is in the interests of the base.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, the Opposition spokesman, in opposing the dismantling of the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service. I join him also in paying tribute to the reserve forces. I am delighted and honoured that, during the past week, I have been asked to become a vice-president of the Maritime Voluntary Service. I was delighted to accept the honour, and I shall do everything I can to support it.

Mr. Peter Griffiths

Will the hon. Lady's new office involve service at sea?

Ms Squire

I hope so. I participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Royal Navy, and found it invaluable. My only qualm is at the number of jackstay transfers that I would be required to undertake. I accept, of course, that it is all good training and experience. Perhaps it is not for me to join the Royal Navy full time but instead to deal with some of the turbulence and uncertainty that this place sometimes introduces.

I repeat my view that the Government are guilty of mismanaging and mishandling the dockyards. Even the National Audit Office has agreed to consider the need for a further report on dockyard matters whenever the Department finally announces its decisions.

The Minister has once again failed to bring any certainty to the two royal dockyards. He has given no guarantees on pensions, redundancies or pay and conditions. He has not said that there will be no changes without agreement. Is he willing to give such guarantees today? If not, will he say when he intends to give them?

There is a growing rumour that the term contract for both dockyards, which is due to end on 1 April, is likely to be extended. Is that the position? If so, how long will the extension be? When does the Minister expect to make a decision on the contract award? When will announcements be made on additional submarine work and an aircraft carrier coming into Rosyth? Are there any impending programme changes for either Rosyth or Devonport? Is the Minister able to be any more specific, rather than saying that an announcement will be made in a few weeks? I have been hearing that phrase throughout my time in this place.

I have concentrated so far on shoreside infrastructure at Rosyth and Devonport. It is not glamorous, but it is vital. That is not my view and mine alone. I shall quote from an article that Admiral Sir Benjamin Bathurst wrote in August 1995 for the Royal United Services Institute. The quotation leads me to make some comments about the wider agenda, including the size of the fleet and forces, the support infrastructure and procurement. The admiral said: Successful operations, collaboration and training, particularly when resources are stretched, depend on an adequate shore-side infrastructure to guarantee that we make the most of what we have at sea. Stores and engineering may not be to the public eye the stuff of glamour, but whilst an army may still march on its stomach, a fleet relies on readily available support to remain effective and efficient. The admiral then referred to service personnel. I have not found morale in the Royal Navy as high as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North has described. Perhaps my outlook has been affected by my proximity to Rosyth naval base, which is about to close, and by not being where most naval personnel are located, but even during my time with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, morale often seemed low on board the ships.

The admiral also said: uniformed people may appear to be more expensive during the relative calm and tranquillity of peacetime programmes which are planned and structured. But when we have to despatch a force, or repair ships, or replace crews, or sustain an operation, we need that base from which to generate the required support.. the armed forces provide an insurance policy and we must be capable of honouring the obligations for which the public pay the premium. There is great concern that the continuing reduction of the fleet and service personnel is affecting morale. We are still waiting for the fleet to reach its planned strength of 25 minesweepers, with 35 destroyers and frigates, three carriers and 12 nuclear submarines. The only prospect of a minor reduction in the Navy's commitments will come next year in the final withdrawal from Hong Kong. Hon. Members and Ministers have already mentioned the Royal Navy's extensive commitments, and evidence shows that, since 1993, the Royal Navy's resources have been stretched in meeting its commitments.

The permanent deployment of a carrier and a number of escorts to the Adriatic contributed to the Royal Navy's withdrawal from a number of NATO exercises, which inevitably impacts on the training and experience available for naval personnel. It also puts increased pressures on service families—a point that the Minister mentioned in his opening speech—who are separated for ever longer periods.

I would welcome the Minister's comments on the Ministry of Defence's directorate of operational capability last year, which said that there were weaknesses in sealift during a paper exercise to see whether Britain could mount an amphibious operation similar to that of the Falklands. All that can affect morale in the Royal Navy and the adequacy of our defence and security cover.

That leads me to the merchant fleet—an issue that has already been raised. I quote from another admiral—Rear-Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who made a vital point in 1890, in a document entitled, "The Influence of Sea Power on History", in which he said: Sea power in the broad sense includes not only the military strength afloat that rules the sea or any part of it by force of arms, but also the peaceful commerce and shipping from which alone a military fleet naturally and healthily springs and on which it securely rests. I see heads nodding in agreement with that. Yet it is widely believed that there are insufficient merchant ships on the British register to meet all defence contingencies today.

As hon. Members are aware, 92 per cent. of this country's exports, almost all its oil, gas, timber and key imports, and almost half its food, are seaborne. Of the 71 merchant vessels chartered by the MOD since the beginning of 1992 to participate in exercises, only one has been British-registered, and for operations in Bosnia, 23 vessels have been chartered—none of them British.

Mr. Soames

I do not mean to labour the point, but the hon. Lady raises issues that are for the Department of Transport and the Treasury to deal with. So far as the military side is concerned, which is all that we are able to discuss this evening, as I told her hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), what matters is that the services are able to conduct operations efficiently, effectively and promptly, and to that end we go to the Baltic Exchange when it is necessary to charter ships.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was wrong that we should borrow ships from the Americans, but we are grateful to the Americans for their help in providing sealift. It saved us chartering two extra ships. When we go to the Baltic Exchange to charter a ship, if a British ship is available, that is good news. If it is not, we charter what we need for the job, so that we can get the best value for money for the taxpayer. Plainly, it would be pleasant if all the ships that we charter were British, but they are not, and there are good reasons for that.

Ms Squire

I listened to what the Minister said, but we should debate what ships would be available for a planned exercise and our ability to obtain the ships that we would need in a sudden emergency. That is of concern not just to me and other hon. Members, but to the Select Committee on Defence.

I quote now from the Committee's sixth report, produced last year, entitled, "Defence Use of Civilian Transport Assets and Personnel": In a continually changing strategic environment where increasing emphasis is placed on the rapid deployment of our Armed Forces overseas the role of civilian transport assets and personnel becomes ever more significant. In our view, the ability of civilian markets to respond in a crisis has for too long been taken for granted; a process of regular and detailed review of all aspects of transport provision is essential before a satisfactory degree of confidence on this front can be established and maintained. I now deal with procurement. I, too, wish to criticise the Government for the continuing delay in their decision on which of the two yards will get the order for the three frigates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, 1,100 jobs are at stake at Yarrow on the Clyde. That shipbuilder is saying that it cannot continue to keep its work force unless it knows for definite, not in the next few weeks but now, what the Ministry of Defence decision will be.

I appreciate the points that were made about the hundreds of jobs at risk to Vosper Thornycroft. The Government do not seem to learn from history what happens when we allow our manufacturing base, particularly our shipbuilding and refitting capabilities, to decline. I accept that increasingly we operate on the basis of coalitions with our American and European allies, but we could experience problems if we envisage the threat as purely national.

The Evening Standard spoke eloquently last week about defence procurement in its editorial on the contract for battlefield ambulances being awarded to, I am pleased to say, Land Rover instead of an Austrian firm. What the article said also applies to naval procurement, however.

According to the Evening Standard, The British defence industry accounts for 425,000 jobs, or 7 per cent. of the nation's manufacturing workforce. No Government can afford to ignore this. It is absurd in this context to talk of the Government skewing the market: the Government is the market. It is the responsibility of Government to act as steward for the national interest. I hope that the Minister will heed those comments, and accept that Britain must not abdicate its ability to build its own warships, aircraft and land weaponry. It must not lose out in that regard.

I gather that the Secretary of State cannot be present for most of the debate. I must say, however, that—like, perhaps, some naval personnel and others—I sometimes wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman occasionally needs to be reminded that he is no longer at the Treasury. It strikes me as appropriate to quote a famous verse from "HMS Pinafore". Before hon. Members exit rapidly at the thought of hearing me sing—I admit that I was chucked out of the school choir—let me assure them that I intend simply to recite the verse. Hon. Members may wish to join in.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

Go on, sing it.

Ms Squire

No, no; I will not do that, even for my hon. Friend.

The words of the song will be very familiar: Now landsmen all, whoever you may be, If you want to rise to the top of the tree, If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool, Be careful to be guided by this golden rule— Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee! The Royal Navy may sometimes consider that that verse is still an appropriate comment on certain aspects of the present Government.

I began by mentioning the defence costs study, and ended by quoting from "HMS Pinafore". In between, I have tried to make some pertinent points about the difficulties currently facing the Royal Navy, its personnel and its infrastructure. If I had been able to read as much as I would have wished, I could have said much more about global maritime strategy; but I shall conclude by drawing the Government's attention to some points made in a book that landed on my desk recently, entitled "The Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine".

Let me quote from the afterword: The Royal Navy and Royal Marines are accustomed to the mayhem of world events, but the Naval Service of today puts to sea in a particularly confused world, in which security problems are not amenable to clear-cut solutions … In this environment positive forces must be united if there is to be progress … British forces must not only be able to operate closely with Allies and friends, but must be seminal in enhancing the capability of multinational forces. Clarity of thought and expression is essential in this environment. Without it, planning will be diffuse and execution muddled. I hope that, in the next 12 months, the Government's approach and their support for the Royal Navy will feature clarity, careful planning and clear decision making.

5.53 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), as it was a pleasure to hear her, in such expansive form, deliver such an interesting speech. She quoted from "HMS Pinafore"; I should like to quote from "The Mikado"—the song of the Lord High Executioner, who had a "little list" of people whom he wished to execute. He sang: I've got a little list—I've got a little list". One of the people on the list was The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this, and every country but his own. Sometimes, in this honourable House, people are not enthusiastic enough about praising their own country. However, they certainly do not include my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who, in a forthright intervention on the speech of the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) an hour or so ago, robustly praised the British armed services—the Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force—for their splendid achievements in Bosnia, as did my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. That is what I like to hear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who has just left the Chamber, said that the morale of the British armed services—including the Royal Navy—was high, and I believe that to be so. Bosnia, however, illustrates the fact that war has certainly not ended in the world for good. We can think of at least four examples in the past 15 years that have involved the British services, including the Royal Navy: Bosnia, the Falkland Islands, Kuwait and, of course, Northern Ireland. In that context, I include the Royal Marines in the Royal Navy.

That Britain should have had to be involved in armed conflicts of international significance four times in the past 15 years shows that human nature has not changed. Throughout human history, nations have attacked one another, and it would be absurdly arrogant and ridiculously optimistic for anyone to assume that human nature has somehow changed for the better—that we shall be immune from that risk either in the next few years or in the next century. I hope and trust that our Government, and the present Parliament and its successors, will always be vigilant in upholding British defences, and that we shall never relax our guard. It would be extremely dangerous to give way to that temptation, thus increasing the risk to our country.

I was brought up with the Royal Navy. I hope that the House will not mind my saying something personal in that way. My father was in the Navy for 40 years as a regular naval officer; in the second world war he was a destroyer captain—much decorated, I am proud to say: he won a DSO and two DSCs. After the war, he was on the staff of the Royal Naval college in Greenwich, where he was an instructor in naval tactics and naval strategy before going to do the same for the Indians in India. That marked the beginning of my interest in India.

I was sent into the Royal Navy as a cadet at the Royal Naval college in Dartmouth when I was 13. I had been in and out of the Navy twice by the time I was 20. At 17, I asked to leave; they heaved a sigh of relief, but I went back in to do national service within eight months, and served as a midshipman on HMS Glasgow, the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet and sister ship of the Belfast town class cruiser, now moored on the Thames. The commander-in-chief was Lord Mountbatten, a remarkable man who ought to be honoured every year in this country and never forgotten for his splendid gifts and achievements.

I remember the words that were carved in enormous stone letters at Dartmouth: It is on the Navy, under good providence of God, that our wealth, prosperity and peace depend. That was true then, and it is true today. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West pointed out, a large proportion of our food supplies and materials, and of our exports, still travel by sea. The Royal Navy remains absolutely essential.

As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West told stories about two admirals, I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I tell a story about a third, Admiral Sir James Somerville, who was commander-in-chief of the British naval force in Gibraltar during the second world war.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North referred to the women in the Royal Navy who are the successors of the Wrens—the Women's Royal Naval Service. During the second world war, the chief officer of the Wrens in Gibraltar had the title of Chief Officer Wrens, the abbreviation for which was COW, which she did not like. She applied to Admiral Sir James Somerville for her title to be changed, and he sent a signal around the fleet saying, "Chief Officer Wrens will in future be known as Senior Office Wrens." He then invited her to dinner and they were great friends thereafter.

The hon. Member for Torfaen was kind enough to predict that I would refer to service bands and the Royal Marine bands. I am happy to reassure him that I intend to do exactly that. The performances of the Royal Marine bands are extremely fine. They have recently had to leave Deal, and although I can understand how people at Deal feel, the cost of a whopping great Victorian barracks became impossible to sustain. They have moved, for the time being at least, to Portsmouth.

When the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was speaking in the debate on the Army last month, I intervened and referred to the training of Army bands at the Royal Military school of music at Kneller Hall in my constituency. Those Army bands are without exception the envy of the entire world and I am very proud of the fact that they are trained in Twickenham.

The number of Army bands has fallen with reduced defence expenditure, as have the number of Royal Marine bands, and once again there is talk of a joint services school of music. There is some surplus capacity at Kneller Hall, where a new bandstand is under construction, which—I hope—is a mark of confidence in the future.

Whatever happens to the Royal Marine bands—I would not trespass on the territory of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, although I do not know how permanent the arrangements are—and if ever the Government decide on a joint services school of music, the Royal Marine bands would be most warmly welcomed in Twickenham, where they could train alongside the Army bands at Kneller Hall. I am certain that the technical and traditional differences in the interpretation of music and in the instruction on the different forms of phrasing required by the Royal Marines would be fully respected.

I shall now refer to the preservation of historic warships. I declare an interest as an unpaid director of the Warship Preservation Trust, which was set up by our former colleague, Sir Philip Goodhart. He perceived that future generations—perhaps well into the 21st century—would be able easily to see 18th to 19th-century warships such as HMS Victory, and 19th-century warships such as HMS Warrior, but that in 100 years, unless somebody did something about it, nobody would be able to see 20th-century warships such as those that fought in the second world war.

Sir Philip knew that the Ministry of Defence was unable to find the substantial sums needed to pay for preservation and that the National Art Collections Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and such bodies were crammed full of people who cared passionately about paintings, sculptures and old buildings, but were not very naval-minded and not particularly interested in finding large sums to preserve warships. He therefore decided to set up the trust, and already it has two ships—a submarine from the second world war and an old frigate that fought in the Falkland Islands 15 years ago, which is now out of date.

Although, as we are all aware, the Belfast is moored in the Thames where people can see it, one wants a complete range of warships. Nobody questions the preservation of military aircraft for educational purposes, whether at Duxford, Hendon, the Imperial War museum or the Science museum. Aircraft tend to be rather smaller than ships, however, so it is rather a larger undertaking to preserve an old ship and stop it rusting and falling to pieces.

The national lottery bodies should take an interest in the matter. The National Heritage Select Committee, on which I serve, is shortly to embark on a review of the structure of the national lottery and the way in which its funds are allocated, and I very much hope that it considers proposing a structure to make it possible for national lottery funds to be used for the preservation of warships.

The same is true of that splendid, beautiful and magnificent ship the royal yacht Britannia, which was the subject of an Adjournment debate at the end of 1994, to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replied. He paid tribute to that magnificent ship, not only for its royal and ceremonial duties, but for its excellent record of promoting British trade abroad.

If, however, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Minister set out, Britannia eventually has to be withdrawn from service—which many of us for sentimental and other reasons would greatly regret—it would be unthinkable to sell it to the Americans or any other worthy people in different parts of the world and not retain it in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Soames

There is absolutely no question of Britannia being sold abroad. There is no question at all of such a thing ever happening. As my hon. Friend rightly says, that would be entirely unthinkable.

Mr. Jessel

I am very glad to receive my hon. Friend's firm, clear and definite assurance, which I hope will be widely reported. I am certain that the great majority of people will fully back that decision.

The right place for Britannia is either on the River Thames or in Portsmouth; she would fit in well in either place. Portsmouth dockyard has received a big award from the millennium fund and is being built up as the prime naval heritage centre in the United Kingdom. I do not know, however, whether there would be room to moor Britannia there and put her on permanent public exhibition, so that people could either board her or see her from the quay.

Other right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the Royal Naval college in Greenwich. I see that the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) is in his place and I would not be surprised if he were to catch the Speaker's eye. Greenwich college is probably one of the 20 or 30 most important heritage buildings in the United Kingdom. It is a marvellous building, which is why I was so very glad to be told by the Secretary of State for Defence that a committee of experts—I do not know whether the name of the chairman has been published, so I better not mention it—and distinguished people with great interest in heritage has been established to study what is to be done, and to ensure that the building is used in a way that will preserve permanently its quality and make its future worthy of its distinguished naval past.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

The hon. Gentleman rightly expressed anxiety about the future of the royal yacht Britannia, and received a categorical assurance from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that there was no question of it being sold to an overseas buyer. I hope, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees, that we may hear a similar categorical assurance that there is no question of the Royal Naval college being disposed of on lease to an overseas organisation.

Mr. Jessel

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view on that matter. Of course, there is one slight difference between Britannia and the Royal Naval college. If Britannia were sold, she could be towed away, or could travel under her own steam to a destination abroad. But it would not be physically possible to move the Royal Naval college building without it falling apart. But I, too, hope that the building will be run by British people.

The word "lease" has been mentioned, but it would be a 150-year lease. I know that a lease is not the same as the freehold, which we are told will remain permanently in the hands of the Government of the United Kingdom. But if someone buys a house on a 150-year lease, he thinks that it belongs to him. Although there are some limits on what he can do to it structurally, he does feel as if it were his. I hope that that will be borne in mind by the distinguished panel of experts who will consider that important matter.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for listening to me. Now I shall sit down.

6.11 pm
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) will pardon me if I do not follow directly his lively, entertaining, personalised but very positive speech.

However, old ship preservation is historically important. For example, I often think of the old battleship Warspite, which had such a remarkable record, from Jutland through Matapan to D day, but ended up on the rocks of Prussia cove en route to the breakers. It would be something for future generations if such a ship had been preserved—but I am afraid that people were not quite as forward looking in those times as they have, I hope, become more recently.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), our defence spokesman, apologises for not being present. I am but a humble substitute.

Mr. Soames

No, no.

Sir Russell Johnston

Very humble, I assure the hon. Gentleman. Sadly, I must even leave before the conclusion of the debate, for which I apologise. I shall not delay the House for long, but there are a few issues that I want to raise briefly, either on our own account or in support of what has already been said.

The overriding factor is strength in relation to commitment or projected commitment. There is clear concern about that. But it is not something on which we should spend all our time criticising the Government; I should have thought that the concern was shared throughout the House. Hon. Members on both sides of the House want our Navy to be effective, and to continue to be so.

In this debate it has become the fashion, set by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), to quote admirals. Not wishing to be unfashionable, I shall quote Admiral Sir Jock Slater, the First Sea Lord, on strength in relation to commitment: The reality is that if you reduce the number of frigates, destroyers and submarines, and the number of small ships as we are doing, and you maintain as we are doing, the number of tasks, then inevitably the stresses and strains on the fleet are greater … Therefore the opportunities for maintenance are less, for leave and recreation are less, the opportunities for training at a higher level are not so great". The First Sea Lord does not say such things for fun. The Minister should recognise that there is considerable concern on that subject.

As the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said—I agreed with a great deal of his speech—we still have commitments in the Caribbean, the middle east, the Gulf and Hong Kong, although the latter will go next year. There is also the Adriatic. I associate myself with what has already been said in praise of the work of the Navy there, but that, too, will probably go if the Dayton accord works. It is a bit early to say whether it will; the situation is certainly difficult.

Such exercises and demands on our naval resources will almost certainly be repeated elsewhere. The Mediterranean alone is clearly an area of great potential instability, from the Aegean right along the north African coast. Egypt is in potential turmoil, we know about Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, and, moving up through Tunisia, Algeria is still under tremendous stress. The instability continues right up to the point where the Mediterranean joins the Atlantic at Gibraltar.

The likelihood of incidents of tension arising is great, not only in the Mediterranean but in the Black sea, another area containing all sorts of risks of tension and conflict. In certain circumstances, NATO or the United Nations could be involved. We need to be prepared for such events, and for our participation in them. For example, I am sure that the Minister has registered the fact that the newly completed Russian aircraft carrier made its first voyage through the Mediterranean, thus symbolically reasserting Russia's importance in that area.

In the background, as the hon. Members for Torfaen and for Dunfermline, West have said, is the great fall, from 690 to 556 in the past decade, in the number of merchant ships on the British register available for defence purposes. That is a matter for concern.

When one says that something is a matter for concern, people usually ask, "What would you do about it?" It is a fair question—and I do not know whether there is anything much that we can do about it, because of the heavy decline in our shipbuilding capacity. However, I often wonder whether there is more that not only we but other like-minded countries could do to ensure that registrations take place with responsible people, rather than with countries such as Panama. I do not know whether the Government exert any pressure in that direction.

Linked to that is the question of amphibious capacity, which has already been more than adequately debated. What will HMS Fearless's life be after it completes its upgrade? How long will it last? The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) asked that question, and also asked whether there would be another as well as HMS Ocean. I cannot say that we heard an answer.

I should like to say a word about the nuclear deterrent. The Minister knows that the Liberal Democrats accept a minimum deterrent, which means—let us be clear about it—no more missiles, and no more warheads than Polaris now has.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement attacked the Labour party as being in favour of disarmament. I am sure that the Labour party can most effectively speak for itself, but, speaking for myself, I see nothing dishonourable in seeking disarmament—quite the contrary. One can say that we require an effective, efficient defence system too; those two things do not necessarily contradict each other.

Mr. Llew Smith

May I ask the hon. Gentleman the question that I posed the Minister, which he failed to answer? If nuclear weapons were a part of our defence and if the hon. Gentleman were in a position of power, would he, if the crunch came, be willing to press the button to start off those nuclear weapons? If he did, could he anticipate some of the devastation that they would inflict on the environment and on the people of this planet?

Sir Russell Johnston

I should prefer not to embark on a long speculation on the theology of deterrence.

Mr. Smith

It is not a matter of theology.

Sir Russell Johnston

It is very much the theology of deterrence, because the whole theory is that it would not be used. As the Minister said, it worked vis-à-vis the Soviet Union when it was in existence. Nowadays, there is another form of deterrent—the French idea of force de frappe. In other words, if China or another country were to develop weapons, the French could say, "We cannot defeat you, but we will injure you. So great a threat of injury exists from us that you will not attack us."

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman said that nuclear weapons are a deterrent. But if we do not use the nuclear weapons, there is surely something of a contradiction. If the weapons are a deterrent, by definition one must be willing to use them. Otherwise, they are no longer a deterrent.

Sir Russell Johnston

I repeat what I said—the matter does get theological. I know perfectly well that there is a contradiction, but one prays that one will never have to use those weapons. I shall not go beyond that.

The Minister may recall that, at the beginning of the 1980s, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Teviotdale—

Mr. Soames


Sir Russell Johnston

I stand corrected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) went to France with the late and beloved Dr. David Owen to talk about nuclear co-operation with the French. There have been proponents of such an approach on both sides of the channel. I remember listening at length to the then French Minister of Defence, Mr. Chevènement, making a long and extremely enthusiastic speech to the Defence Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Western European Union. His great enthusiasm, however, was not matched by his clarity. He talked about the need not only for the British and French to co-operate, but for a European deterrent to evolve. He did not say how that could be done. Will the Minister say something about the extent to which co-operation with the French—which, after all, has worked extremely well in Bosnia—is advancing in regard to the relationship between the independent nuclear deterrent and the force de frappe?

At business questions, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) raised the issue of fisheries protection—a matter that comes up time and again. I often wonder whether we should have greater collaboration within the EU in respect of fisheries protection. I feel strongly that it makes sense for EU member states—which, after all, frame the regulations of the common fisheries policy—to work together in terms of protection.

The Minister might be horrified at this suggestion, but I think that ships crewed from more than one country—English and Spaniards, for example, or Scots and Danes—would improve relations, and might avoid or reduce the likelihood of exaggerated confrontations.

Mr. Soames

That might be taking it a little far. I know, however, that the hon. Gentleman and most hon. Members would approve of the fact that the Royal Navy trains and operates day after day with navies from all over the world. The Navy enjoys a most intimate relationship with a number of European navies, with which we co-operate closely. German ships, for example, are training at the moment under the flag officer sea training. The French come to train with us, and we have been working closely with the Spanish navy on fishery protection. There is a most intimate relationship between all seafarers, but particularly between navies which, by and large, are friends.

Sir Russell Johnston

I thank the Minister.

Finally, I wish to refer to three "single issues". First, we welcome the establishment of the naval support command, which brings together various support activities. However, the decision to base the NSC partly in Bath and partly at the new Ministry of Defence base at Abbey Wood in north Bristol has to be questioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has vigorously pursued the matter, and he remains convinced that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money could be wasted if the MOD continues to reject the private finance initiative that has been proposed by my hon. Friend, the local councils and the chamber of commerce in Bath.

Mr. Soames

It is a load of balls.

Sir Russell Johnston

That may not be a parliamentary expression. Chambers of commerce, as we know, have a good attitude to the Government. I wonder what their response to that remark will be when it goes on the record.

Secondly, I agree entirely with what the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said about the Royal Naval college. We want there to be, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Twickenham, a worthy use of the college.

Thirdly, I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West said so clearly on Rosyth and Devonport.

Life is different now, as has been said, but standards in the Navy remain admirably high. That has been shown in the quality of the Navy's contribution in the Falklands, the Gulf and—more recently—in the Adriatic. It has shown itself to be a formidable fighting force. We must face up to the fact, however, that we do not have the same resources that we once had. The future will inevitably see more and more co-operation, much of which—as the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said—is being done within the EU and NATO. I should perhaps have liked to hear a little more about that from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement than I did.

6.26 pm
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

While agreeing with much of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), including his remarks about new frigates being built by Vosper Thornycroft and the importance of keeping competition in that market, I wish to concentrate today on the importance of the Government making a decision sooner rather than later on the future of the royal yacht Britannia, a subject that has been mentioned several times in the debate. Britannia is due to be decommissioned in the summer of next year, and I want the Government to propose a sensible plan for her successor.

Any schemes must be considered with particular sensitivity to the use of taxpayers' money. I realise all too well, as do Ministers, that it may seem untimely to consider royal yachts at a time when some members of the royal family are attracting unwelcome publicity—I put it no higher than that—for the monarchy. In that respect, as one incident succeeds another, I still believe that to the three constitutional rights which Bagehot assigned to the sovereign—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn—should be added the right to despair. Putting all that aside, however, the Government cannot and must not put off a balanced debate and a decision as to the fate of Britannia and what to do about her successor.

First, natural and understandable emotions, which I share, are raised when the fate of Britannia is considered, not least in her home base of Portsmouth, where she is the second oldest ship in commission—HMS Victory being the oldest, of course, although it is no longer seagoing. Since her arrival on the scene in the early 1950s, Britannia has been supremely served by many dedicated crews. She remains a standard bearer of excellence in the Royal Navy and a potent symbol of British nationality and sovereignty. The same was true, of course, of her predecessor—the Victoria and Albert which, after being stripped out, was scuttled. I do not advocate that fate for Britannia.

Two other options are open. First, appropriate fittings could be removed and the ship sold so that the MOD and the taxpayer get a proper return on the disposal. I do not advocate that she should be sold abroad, however, and I was relieved at what my hon. Friend the Minister said about that.

The second option is to give Britannia to one of the cities or organisations which are keen to offer her a home—including Portsmouth—with a one-off endowment of taxpayers' money, or one extracted from national lottery funds. According to those who advocate that course, she could be permanently moored and preserved as a tourist attraction or even converted into a hotel or conference centre. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and others who support variations of that scheme, that option is fanciful and not sufficiently thought through, irrespective of how many consultants and reports are considered, and neither taxpayers' nor ratepayers' money should be used for that purpose.

Portsmouth has already been assigned £40 million of lottery funds through the Millennium Commission to help in the regeneration of a substantial part of the harbour. To found any scheme to preserve Britannia on the hope or expectation of more lottery funds is to emulate Oliver Twist—with, I suspect, the same result. However fascinating Britannia may be, especially at first, she will never be a viable tourist or commercial attraction. She would not have the unique attractions of HMS Victory, which is expensive enough to maintain already, or those of the Mary Rose museum or HMS Warrior.

Conversion to a hotel would be prohibitively expensive, not least because of the asbestos and other materials used in Britannia's construction in the 1950s. Whoever took her on as a tourist attraction, quite apart from the enormous initial capital costs, would never be free of expense and subsidy. Should it be Portsmouth, I foresee that, sooner or later, large and continuing sums of taxpayers' and ratepayers' money, in cash and in kind, would be required to berth, maintain and run her. However emotionally attractive, such a plan is not likely to be given a fair wind by the MOD or by Ministers; nor would I recommend or press it. I favour removing appropriate fittings and selling her, though not abroad, so that the taxpayer gets a proper return on the disposal.

The most exciting and important consideration is that of a modern replacement for Britannia—just as, at the beginning of the present reign, she replaced her predecessor the Victoria and Albert. I have no doubt that there ought to be a successor ship and that it should be based in Portsmouth. Would anyone expect me to say anything else? She could inherit being the symbol of British nationality and sovereignty, and the international prestige, and continue helping to win significant export orders and being the unique endorsement of Britain's role and position in the international community.

An imaginative plan which shows great vision is being seriously prepared by the Cadland consortium. It would result in a ship 370 ft long, with a beam of 48 ft—I am no expert, but I will give some of the details—a multi-engined propulsion system capable of 20 knots and a classic three-masted rig. She would have a service life of 75 years and require a permanent crew of 40 rather than the 240 required on Britannia.

The plan does not envisage either taxpayers' money or lottery money to construct the ship. Income to maintain and run her would be generated from sail training and from commercial, Government and royal duties. She would successfully combine four main roles. First, she would fulfil royal state duties as at present. Secondly, she would have the capacity for 180 Queen's cadets from Britain and Commonwealth countries, which would add a social and cultural dimension, combined with sail training. Thirdly, the design and equipment would demonstrate the highest levels of British technology, engineering standards and design quality. Fourthly, public participation and access would be encouraged. Her exhibition facilities would offer an unrivalled platform for overseas trade promotion and continue Britannia's role in generating wealth for Britain.

Without going into further and unnecessary details, I believe that the plan combines vision and realism in equal measure. However, without a decision soon about the fate of Britannia and the Government's intentions as to a successor, such plans cannot be properly and publicly promoted with a fair chance of success, especially as the lead-in time is at least two years and probably more. I want a ministerial decision as soon as possible so that we can release the enterprise and imagination of the many people who are willing and keen to contribute to British achievement and naval excellence for the 21st century, with which Portsmouth will continue to be proud to be associated.

6.35 pm
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

I should like to follow the remarks of several hon. Members about the award of the order for type 23 frigates, and especially the interest of Vosper Thornycroft in that delayed—and now urgent—decision. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement knows of my strong constituency interest. The shipyard is on the edge of my constituency and many of my constituents are employed there. I am grateful to him for the time that he gave me and some of my colleagues a few weeks ago to discuss the case for Vosper Thornycroft.

Hon. Members who have visited Vosper Thornycroft in recent years include members of Labour's defence team and those with an interest in training policy, who are interested in its innovative approach to work force training. They will have been enormously impressed by the quality of the company, its management and work force. It is well managed, has a committed work force and is committed to investment, both in capital equipment and in the work force. Although, by the nature of the business, it is not always possible to avoid job losses, the company has had an excellent record of retaining and retraining the work force wherever possible.

It is a matter of deep regret that a cloud of uncertainty hung over the company, my constituency and the rest of Southampton over Christmas and the new year. People had been led to believe that the decision on the order would be made before Christmas. Unfortunately, even today, we have had no date for the decision to be made. The practical consequences of the delay are already serious. The work force was reduced by more than 100 before Christmas. Those were not compulsory redundancies, but the release of contract workers. Nevertheless, contract jobs are still jobs to the people who were doing them and who no longer have the chance to do them. Further delay would make forward planning for the company even more difficult. If no decision was made and no work on the contract allocated to Vosper Thornycroft, employment would fall by a further 500 in the next year alone.

In parliamentary answers recently, the Minister has said that the order will be for up to three frigates. He said earlier that he hopes to take a decision within a few weeks. If he has not yet decided how many he wants, it will be a rushed job for those who have to do the work. I would have hoped that, by this stage, he could have told us how many frigates the Royal Navy requires, as a precursor to deciding who is to build them. I hope that he will give an absolute commitment that there is no question of the decision being delayed beyond the date of the current tendering period in March. It must not be delayed into a period of re-tendering and further indecision. That would be unacceptable to all those who are waiting on that decision. I hope that that commitment and perhaps a clear sign of the decision date and the number of vessels will be forthcoming. Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), I hope that the number will be three.

Any hon. Member would expect me to have a constituency interest in my local shipyard, but I genuinely believe that in this case my constituency interest and the interest of the Southampton area coincide precisely with the national interest. The continued success of Vosper Thornycroft is vital for two reasons. First, it is vital to the future procurement policies of the Royal Navy, particularly the Royal Navy's ability to seek competitive tendering for new vessels in the future. Secondly, the awarding of the contract to Vosper Thornycroft is vital to sustain the company's remarkable export success in recent years.

Those two key issues—being able to supply the Royal Navy and being successful in export markets—come together in the awarding of the contract for the type 23 frigate. Vosper Thornycroft's ability to provide competition for Royal Navy orders depends, in practice, on the shipyard continuing to win the export orders which have sustained the company through much of the recent past. In turn—and this is crucial—export success depends on being able to show that the Royal Navy has confidence in the company by placing orders in it. The awarding of the type 23 frigate contract can secure both the future of competition in the awarding of contracts and Vosper Thornycroft's continued success in the export markets. The two issues cannot sensibly be separated. Over the next two years, Vosper Thornycroft will deliver six steel vessels—orders which were won on the back of previous steel shipbuilding for the Royal Navy.

What is the current position? One example that I have been given is that Vosper Thornycroft recently lost a valuable export contract for Brunei to GEC. In the company's view, a critical factor was the absence of a recent Royal Navy endorsement of Vosper Thornycroft as a supplier of steel ships. In that case, the competition was within the United Kingdom and the contract was perhaps not so significant in terms of the national interest, but there are many export markets in which Vosper Thornycroft is the sole UK competitor. If Vosper Thornycroft does not win those orders, they will not go to another British shipyard: they will go to naval shipbuilders in other parts of the world. That should be a serious consideration for the Minister.

The Minister placed weight on the NAPNOC—no acceptable price no contract—procedure, but there is scepticism on both sides of the House about the ability of that procedure to provide competitive prices. If Vosper Thornycroft suffers in the future, not only will the Royal Navy be dependent on that approach to contracting, but the country will lose Vosper Thornycroft's export ability.

In the future, there are longer-term plans for 12 common new generation frigates. It is therefore reasonable to ask the following question. Does the Minister believe that a future Navy Minister would be able to achieve the sort of savings—about one third over the life of the type 23 class of frigate—if at that time there were only one company capable of supplying all those vessels and thus one sole supplier with which the Government of the day had to negotiate? I do not believe that it would be credible to follow the NAPNOC procedure to its ultimate extent and suggest that the Royal Navy would forgo vessels that it needed because it was unable to get the price that it wanted.

I hope that I have summarised the case for placing the orders with Vosper Thornycroft. Of course, that is one of my key constituency interests, and other right hon. and hon. Members have other constituency interests. However, I believe that placing the orders with Vosper Thornycroft is in the national interest, the Royal Navy's interest and the company's interest in contributing to the United Kingdom's export record. My constituents would be disappointed if the orders were not placed with Vosper Thornycroft, but they would be doubly bitter if they felt that the long-term interests of the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom's economy were also to be sacrificed.

6.44 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

I apologise to the House for not having been here earlier—I warned that I would not be able to be here. Hon. Members have already spoken about their constituency interests. Mid-Staffordshire is nowhere near the sea, but I speak in the national interest.

Before I became a Member of Parliament I was occupied in exporting around the world. I have been able to watch the debate on television and I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about the importance of the Royal Navy, not only in terms of the defence of the realm but as a means to promote British exports. Having travelled throughout the world, particularly in the United States, I find it interesting to note the modernity of the Royal Navy. Many of the vessels in the US navy, although larger than ours, date back to the Korean war. It is a credit to the Ministry of Defence and to my hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that the Royal Navy is not only lean but modern and sleek.

We have also been correct, if not always politically correct, to maintain our nuclear deterrent. It is an unfortunate fact that the genie of how to develop nuclear weapons, once let out of the bottle, cannot easily be put back inside it. Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, we should never forget that the Russian Federation, although an ally, still has nuclear weapons. Sadly, nuclear proliferation has meant that there are a growing number of nations around the world which, even though they do not possess nuclear weapons, certainly have the ability to make them and, perhaps more important, to deliver them.

Deterrence does work: we have seen that in Israel over the Gulf war. The fact that it was known that Israel had nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them was the sole reason why Scuds, which could have been armed with the means of mass annihilation, were not aimed at the state of Israel. That is a good example of how nuclear deterrence works. [HON. MEMBERS: "Scuds were."] It is typical of the Labour party to argue that it does not believe that nuclear deterrence works; it does work. I would argue that the reason we have not had a nuclear war is—

Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to mislead the House, but Scuds were launched at Israel by Iraq in the Gulf war.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I was saying. [Interruption.] I apologise to Opposition Members, who are now making fun of my voice—I am on Tyrozets because I have a sore throat. I said that Scuds were aimed at Israel; I said that they were not armed. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) may like to check the record tomorrow. Scuds were aimed at Israel, but they were not armed because Israel had a nuclear deterrent. It is all very well for Opposition Members to scoff and wave their Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament credentials, but I believe that our Government are right to maintain their nuclear deterrent.

It is not only the nuclear deterrent that is important; it is also important that we have an up-to-date, modern Navy. We already have 13 new type 23 frigates. The UK is committed to the procurement of a common new generation frigate known as Project Horizon. It would have been so easy, with the Russian Federation now our ally, to say that we would make massive cuts in the Royal Navy. France has already decided on a 20 per cent. slash in its defence forces. In common with other countries, we are deriving benefit—a peace dividend—but we are doing so in a responsible way that still secures our global role in the world. On that I commend my hon. Friends the Ministers, who have not taken the easy option but have ensured that the Royal Navy continues to be a means to defend the state and promote our global interests worldwide.

6.49 pm
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

It was interesting to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant). May I correct him on one matter? He said that the Scud missiles were not armed. I should think that quite a few people in Israel were wondering what went bang and killed a large number of people in that country.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson

I think that the hon. Gentleman has had long enough.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this Navy debate. You will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I want to mention the dockyard, the contracts and Trident, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire). As usual, I intend to discuss matters that concern naval personnel, because there are many naval personnel, families and wives in my constituency and because the happiness and contentment of the families are essential to the effectiveness of those on the front line.

Plymouth has a long, proud association with the Navy, in a military setting and in a civilian one. We have the royal naval dockyard, the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy. Until recently, we had the Royal Air Force.

We have the 29th Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, which this year celebrates its centenary in the Citadel in Plymouth. With the leave of the House, I wish to read a resolution that came before Plymouth city council this week: in appreciation of the splendid traditions of the 29th Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and as an expression of the admiration of the Citizens of Plymouth for its great and glorious achievements in the Service of this Country and of its long and historic association with the City, the Council do confer upon the Regiment the honorary freedom of the City of Plymouth". I am pleased to say that the resolution received cross-party—indeed, unanimous—support at the meeting of Plymouth city council on 29 January 1996. I hope that the Royal Artillery commandos will serve in Plymouth for another 100 years.

I congratulate the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in connection with Manadon college. He knows that I have made many representations to him, as have other hon. Members from the Plymouth area from other parties, and I am pleased that we managed to set up the working party that considered the future use of Manadon college.

We nearly succeeded in persuading the university of Plymouth to take the college over. Sadly, that plan has fallen through, but I hope that some other single user will take over the 100 acre site, with all its wonderful facilities. We should be careful not to strip out the remaining assets. Much of the valuable equipment is probably worth millions of pounds as it stands on site, but if it is sold for scrap or auctioned, it will fetch an amount much less than its real value to a future user.

Nearly two and a half years ago, I sat in the Chamber—in almost the position in which I sit today—with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West, and we heard the announcement about the Trident refit contract. I was proud to listen to my hon. Friend, who made an excellent speech tonight. Many of us would suppose that my hon. Friend and I would have competed over those matters, but I am sure that she will confirm that we have never done so, and nor have the trade unions, the wider work force or the people of the two areas. We have been united in the wish to do the best for people who work in our dockyards and for the Royal Navy. We are united in something else: we believe that there is a purpose in having two dockyards in the country to carry out work for the Royal Navy. I praise my hon. Friend, who has been a consistent and dogged advocate of her area.

Two and a half years have elapsed since we sat in the Chamber in June 1993, when the previous Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), made the announcement, but the contract has not been signed. In his opening remarks, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said, yet again, that it would happen in a few weeks. It is rather like Billy Bunter's postal order—it is just about to arrive but it never seems to do so. For more than two years, hon. Members have been told that the announcement would be made in a few weeks. I hope that, when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replies to the debate, he will confirm that it will be a few weeks and tell us the date—the end of February or the end of March, perhaps—by which the contract will be signed.

In Devonport, the period of uncertainty has been further muddied by the spectre of privatisation. The costs incurred leading up to privatisation were £7.2 million. They included consultants' fees, estate agents' fees and lawyers' fees for telling Babcock International Group and Devonport Management Ltd. what they already knew about the site that they were occupying, because they were the only bidders for the two dockyard contracts. As millions of pounds have gone to City accountants, they have undermined the security of the people who have given long, loyal service in the dockyards. That uncertainty and delay have almost certainly delayed the first Trident refit contract, which was intended to start in 1999 but is unlikely to do so before the year 2000.

We had hoped that in 1999 at least the future of people currently working in the dockyard would be secure. Instead, because of the uncertainty, partly because of the lateness in the arrival and signing of the contract and partly because of privatisation, we have short-termism, further lay-offs and further redundancies in the work force. That undermines the dockyard's effectiveness to carry out future work.

In the short term, there has not been the allocation of ships that is necessary to ensure that the work force are maintained at a strategic level to do that work in future.

The Gulf war and the Falklands war were mentioned. At the time of both those wars, I saw my constituents working 24 hours a day to refit ships. I saw the Canberra come in. Men and women worked hour after hour to get ships ready to travel to the Falklands. We could not achieve that now. Those skills have gone—the people have gone and the capacity in the yard has gone. If we make further cuts, our capacity to do other types of work will go. It is vital that we maintain the basis of the work force to meet the strategic requirements of the Royal Navy and the country.

Once those vital skills are lost or those who have them do not practise them for a time, they are lost for ever; in the past few years, we have ceased taking young people into the dockyard to train them to carry out the work in future years. It is the first time this century that we have stopped training young people.

Privatisation has caused further problems. Has privatisation caused the price of the Trident contract to increase? Under privatisation, the contractor will be responsible for the whole contract, and costs of unforeseen changes will be met not by the Ministry of Defence but by the contractor. I wonder how much extra that will cost the taxpayer.

When, or if, the dockyards are privatised, it is intended that Brown and Root, which is essentially an American company, whose merits I shall not discuss, will have the majority shareholding in Devonport. Perhaps the most important question that we must ask tonight is, what guarantees will the Government give that Brown and Root could not be taken over by a hostile company, perhaps from a hostile country? The Minister must give that answer tonight before he makes any announcement about further plans for privatisation. South Western Electricity plc has been taken over by an American company, and the local people who own shares have had them compulsorily purchased by the Americans; so we have experience of those matters in the locality.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The Ministry of Defence will retain a special share that will give us the power to stop anything that would damage our security.

Mr. Jamieson

I am grateful to the Minister. I have asked that question many times before and that reassurance has never been given. Can he also tell us whether that golden share will guarantee the redundancy arrangements, pay and terms and conditions that the long-serving and loyal work force have enjoyed for many years? That is a question to which the people in my constituency, many of whom have given 20, 30 or more years of service, want a reply.

I received a letter today from one of my constituents, a man in his 50s, who has worked in the dockyard since he was an apprentice. He said that he did not choose to leave the Ministry of Defence, and he wants to know what will happen to the contract of employment that he signed many years ago.

Mr. Llew Smith

My hon. Friend mentioned the record of Brown and Root. Would he care to comment on its management of the nuclear plant in Texas and the repercussions of that management?

Mr. Jamieson

I think that it would be more appropriate if the Minister commented on that matter. I hope that he will make a note so that later we might hear what investigations have taken place. There are some important questions to ask, because that company will be the employer of my constituents and, more important, it will provide vital services to our Royal Navy in one of its most sensitive contracts—the refitting of the Trident submarines.

I make no apology for returning to some of the themes about which I have spoken in previous years, partly because I have never had satisfactory answers to some of my questions, especially on issues of concern to service personnel and their families. I have pursued the matter of the service quarters, or more properly the empty married quarters, for nearly four years. All that has happened in that time is that the number of empty properties has gone up, despite the many promises that we have had from Ministers.

I tabled some questions for written answer in September 1992. The answers showed that there were 10,322 empty properties. The Ministry of Defence promised that urgent action was being taken to put that right. In September 1993, the number of empty properties had grown to 10,928, and that was followed by further reassurances that troops were coming home and the houses would be disposed of. In September 1994, there were 11,995 empty properties. The latest figure in December 1995, after all the efforts and energies of the Ministry of Defence had gone into disposing of those properties, showed that 14,098 properties were empty. That is nothing short of a national scandal.

The Joseph Rowntree report published in 1992, "Filling empty homes", put the cost of keeping a Government-owned dwelling empty at approximately £10,000 per home a year. That includes the rent loss, empty property rates, security costs, the cost of the dilapidation and the bed-and-breakfast costs of those who could live in that property but instead live in temporary accommodation. I make that £141 million a year of lost money. That is £16,093 an hour; so those 14,098 empty homes have cost nearly £50,000 during this debate.

I wish to remind the Minister of a comment that has been made about the situation. It was made not by me, or by any other Labour Member, or even by a troublesome Conservative Back Bencher, but by the Department of the Environment's task force report in July 1994 about the Ministry of Defence policy of leasing empty properties to local authorities. The report stated: The record seems to the Task Force rather unimpressive. It continued: the principle of making vacant housing stock available to non-MoD clients should be considered urgently by the Service Departments; but little seems to have happened. The task force was slightly wrong about that because something has happened—there are now more empty properties than when it made that comment. The most damning comment made by the task force—by one Government Department about another—was: MoD have declared many times that they are not a social housing agency. This is obviously true but it should not serve as an excuse for short-sighted anti-social activity. In its conclusions, the task force said: Regrettably, our assessment is that the MoD appears to have been unwilling to accept many of these suggestions … MoD has consistently avoided making any commitments to the Task Force either to improve its housing practices or to reduce its voids.

Mr. Arbuthnot

In view of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, I presume that he fully supports the Ministry of Defence's decision to sell the married quarters estate in a way that will release some money to improve the standard of the portion of the married quarters estate that the Ministry of Defence continues to need.

Mr. Jamieson

I am grateful to the Minister for anticipating the next part of my speech. He will recall that privatisation was attempted two years ago, when the Crown Housing Trust was set up. To refresh the Minister's memory, I shall tell him that £5.4 million was spent on consultants, estate agents and all the people who usually benefit from Tory privatisations. A chief executive was appointed to a job that turned out to be nearly impossible. His salary was £80,000 a year, with performance pay of £20,000 a year, of which he received £18,000 for increasing the number of empty homes by 3,000.

The whole initiative collapsed, but the Ministry of Defence paid the chief executive £180,000 because his contract was not fulfilled. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but after the Ministry had paid the chief executive's salary, performance pay and compensation for his contract, it re-employed him to work on the next failed enterprise. If the Minister is claiming that privatisation is the answer to the empty properties, he should consider the recent history of the Ministry of Defence and its total failure to put people into those empty homes and to maintain its stock.

The Minister asked if I would welcome the privatisation and the sale of the properties by a private operator. The Minister should consider the situation in Peterborough, the Tory party chairman's constituency, where about 150 properties were put on the market. We do not know what price was received for those properties by the taxpayer via the Ministry of Defence because that is commercially confidential information. We cannot be told how much was received, but we know that the properties must have been sold at bargain basement prices, because those properties were put on to market immediately at rock-bottom prices. Of course, people in the area then found that their properties moved further into negative equity, and all sorts of problems were caused. So privatisation is not the way forward.

I suggest that the Minister read the Tory party's 1992 manifesto. It stated that empty Government properties should be released for social housing. Success is possible. Some such properties are being released in the coming week in Plymouth; about 160 Furse Park estate homes, some of them having lain empty for some 18 months or more and having fallen into decay, are being thus released. That is happening only because the Empty Homes Agency and I served an order on the MOD through the Department of the Environment. We have had to prise the fingers of the MOD off those homes one by one.

I believe that a housing association will take over the homes, and the city council will put into them 160 families currently living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or in shelters for the homeless. That represents the way forward. I recommend that the Minister avoid the privatisation route and look at what we have successfully achieved working together in partnership—the MOD, the housing associations and the city council—in the best interests of the homeless and of the taxpayer.

What is to happen to service men and women who currently enjoy the discount scheme for former service quarters? Will they continue to receive any sort of discount; can such a scheme survive privatisation? I believe that the take-up of the scheme is running at about 400 a year. The reason why it is so low is that often service personnel occupy homes that they do not want to buy because they are in areas in which they do not want to live. There is a rumour that the discount scheme is to be abandoned—perhaps the Minister will comment—and that some sort of cash discount scheme that will apply to all service people is to he put in place. If so, many more people will want to take up the scheme because it will apply to any house on the market.

Where is the money to come from? Will it be capped? How will it be decided who is to benefit from the fund? In essence, Ministers are taking away the discount scheme, and that will seriously disadvantage former service personnel—just to make the privatisation look attractive. It is the taxpayer who will lose out.

Another matter that I have raised in the past and about which I feel deeply concerns the fact that many of the families in my constituency use the service children's boarding scheme. I support the idea of boarding education being available for families who need to move around the world and around the country because they are in the service of the country. But the Minister really ought to take a look at many of the families who are benefiting from the scheme but who are not moving around. The Government should perhaps consider education closer to home in the public sector, which does not cost so much.

In 1994–95 this service boarding scheme cost the taxpayer £107 million. What checks are being carried out to ensure that the taxpayer gets good value for money? I concede that many of the schools in the scheme are good independent schools, but the Minister will know from my correspondence with his Department and with the Service Children's Education Association that many of the schools are poor. I have raised this matter with the Minister many times.

The Minister may have seen the article that appeared on 3 December 1995 in The Observer which was deeply critical of a school in Somerset called the Quantock school. Many of its children come from service families. I asked a parliamentary question about it to find out what assessment had been made of the suitability of the Quantock school, Taunton, to be retained on the list of the admissible schools. The Minister replied: A number of reservations were expressed concerning the quality of pastoral care available, and as a result, the suitability of Quantock school to remain on the MOD admissible schools list is being reviewed."—[Official Report, 11 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 479.] It appears, following a further question of mine, that it will take until March 1996 before anything is done in this respect.

The Minister must deal with the problem of inadequate schools immediately. I do not know whether he has seen a document entitled "Ofsted and Onward". It has been produced by a private contractor, CfBT Education Services, for the Office for Standards in Education. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West has quoted Gilbert today, and I want to quote Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall", referred to also in the aforementioned document: We class schools … into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School and School. Frankly … School is pretty bad. The document goes on to describe a prep school that had been the subject not of an Ofsted report which is then made public but of a rather cosy inspection by other people from other independent schools. The Minister should take note of what was said about the school: But in reality this … institution is—if the term has meaning—a 'failing school'. Its fees are high and its pupils are drawn from wealthy (albeit often broken) families, the sons and daughters of military officers, British expatriates and successful businessmen. Very many of its pupils failed to gain entry to the public schools of even their second or third choice; several teachers are incapable of keeping order, let alone organising and encouraging learning; bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are rampant; and 'value for money' is a cheerless joke. This school, wherever it may be, is being supported by taxpayers' money via the MOD. The Minister should look into the problem and investigate the school. If it is indeed failing, the least we can do is make sure that service families are informed.

I hope to get cross-party support for my last point. It concerns service men—it was just men—who served in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and who were exposed in the course of their duties to asbestos. The Crown Proceedings Act 1947 prevented service personnel from making any claim for compensation following exposure to asbestos. The self-same Act gave the right to civilian dockyard workers who had been similarly exposed to claim compensation.

Many of my constituents who are civilian workers were exposed to asbestos and have been able to claim compensation, although not usually a great amount. In 1987 the Act was amended by a private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), to give service men and women the right to claim for exposure to asbestos. By then, asbestos had long been removed from the ships. Of course, no one has claimed; the Bill did not give people the right to claim retrospectively.

This problem affects people who served in the 1939–45 war, others who served in later conflicts and many men who, as youngsters, were sent down to the bowels of the ships and told to strip the lagging off the pipes, thereby being exposed to the worst sort of asbestos. Many of these men, now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, are contracting mesothelioma and other diseases directly related to exposure to asbestos.

This is not a party issue. I ask the Minister at least to make sure that a proper assessment is made of how many men are suffering and of the possible cost of offering them some sort of ex gratia payment for the service that they gave and the suffering that they have endured. This is a rare example of an employer wilfully exposing people to a danger and passing an Act of Parliament to stop them claiming any form of compensation for the danger to which they were exposed.

In my brief contribution, I have tried to address some of the matters of serious concern to former and present service men and women and to those who have given loyal service in the dockyard. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply tonight.

7.19 pm
Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). I cannot promise to match his literary references, but I echo his comments about the men and women who serve in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. We are lucky to have the services of so many dedicated and professional men and women, and I express my admiration and respect for them.

I pay tribute also to the crew of the HMS Cumberland, who, in the past year, have spent much time supporting my county of Cumbria in its efforts to attract new investment and new jobs. All of my constituents would like to express their appreciation and thanks to the officers and the crew of HMS Cumberland.

My constituency has enjoyed a very long association with the Royal Navy. Over the past 150 years, we have built some of the Navy's finest ships, and we continue to do so. My constituency also plays host to many Royal Navy personnel who are currently involved in the Trident programme, and we look forward to a long and continuing association with the Royal Navy.

I think it is common ground on both sides of the House that the past five years have been a period of enormous change for the Royal Navy. Those changes have seen a significant reduction in the size of the fleet—which has raised doubts about its operational capabilities—and those reductions in turn have had a dramatic effect on the size of the United Kingdom naval shipbuilding industry.

Recently, we saw the closures of the Cammell Laird shipyard on Merseyside and the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne. There have been many job losses at Yarrow on the Clyde and at Vosper Thornycroft at Southampton—and that is leaving to one side what has happened in my constituency since 1991 and the release of "Options for Change".

I am sure that the Minister is aware of what has been going on at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. at Barrow-in-Furness, where almost 10,000 jobs have been lost in little more than four years. That has had a tremendous effect on the local economy, and has dealt a devastating blow to my constituency. We are a geographically isolated part of the United Kingdom, which has historically relied on one employer—the shipbuilding firm in that area. My constituents have found it enormously difficult to make the necessary adjustments when they have had to endure so much pain over a short period.

Therefore, I make no apology for concentrating on naval procurement policy, and what I believe to be the Government's failure to manage the process of change in an effective and a sensible manner. I shall deal particularly with the Government's continuing emphasis on competition as the driving force behind their procurement policy. However, before I turn to those issues, I shall comment more generally on the Royal Navy's future role.

I believe that our first priority must be to ensure that the Royal Navy is capable of deploying flexible, highly mobile and self-sustaining forces to any part of the world whenever the need arises. That requirement is a reflection of the end of the cold war and the disappearance of a single, monolithic threat.

In his eloquent speech to the House tonight, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) referred to the fact that quotations by admirals featured in all hon. Members' speeches tonight. I shall continue that tradition by referring to the comments of Sir Benjamin Bathurst in his article in the Royal United Services Institute Journal of August 1995. I agree with him, when, summarising the effects of the "Options for Change" review and the Royal Navy's change of direction, he concludes: Yet overall the move to a broad and balanced expeditionary navy will be seen as a pretty radical change from the anti-submarine warfare orientated doctrines of the Cold War". If we are to support that operational shift in the Royal Navy doctrine, its forces should include aircraft carriers, long-range submarines and landing ships. I think that it is the responsibility not only of the Government but of the Opposition to construct policies that will ensure that the Royal Navy has that equipment and those resources to meet the challenges of the next millennium.

It would be remiss of me to let the issue pass without expressing regret that, earlier today, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement attempted to give the impression that Labour would unilaterally abandon Britain's nuclear deterrent. That is not the case.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised that issue, because it seems that, whenever four Tories gather together, they are genetically compelled to spread myths. I shall take this opportunity to set the record straight. Like the Government, we would like to see a nuclear-free world. Towards that end, we will encourage and participate in global multilateral negotiations. However, until that day—which I fear is far off—we shall retain Trident, and have a deterrent as long as any potential enemy has one.

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting the record straight. We all want to see nuclear disarmament—in fact, I understand that it is Government policy to promote it on a multilateral basis. I am glad to say that that is also my party's policy. My hon. Friend has made it quite clear that we shall not indulge in a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. When discussing the policies and the operational doctrine of the Royal Navy, it is important to have regard to the role it plays deploying Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, in addition to the more flexible approach that we want it to adopt.

Secondly, we must ensure that operations involving long-range deployment of Royal Navy forces can be fully supplied and serviced. A number of concerns have been expressed about the resources available to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and I am glad that at least one of the issues relating to that force has been partly resolved today. We understand that the Ministry of Defence has issued an invitation to tender for two replacements for the O class tankers. That is welcome, but I ask the Minister to say tonight to whom those invitations have been extended.

I see that the Minister is reading a newspaper, which I understand is not the practice that hon. Members should adopt during a debate in this place. I am sorry to see him doing that, and I hope that he is still listening to me.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I shall clear up that matter. If the Minister is reading a newspaper in connection with the debate, he is in order. If it is not connected with the debate, of course he is not.

Mr. Hutton

I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It pains me to refer to the hon. Gentleman in that way, as I know that he takes a very close interest in debates. My constituents will want to know who has been invited to tender, and what time scale the MOD envisages for the tender period. When does the Ministry of Defence expect to issue a contract for the construction of the two new O class vessels?

There is also evidence of continuing overstretch within the Royal Navy. HMS Invincible—an aircraft carrier which was built in my constituency—recently broke almost all the Royal Navy's harmony objectives after its service commitments in the Adriatic. That is a matter of some concern to the Defence Select Committee, because it clearly implies an imbalance between the Navy's commitments and its present strengths. I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will address that issue in his speech later tonight.

I now turn to procurement, both in general and specifically in relation to my constituency. Between 1990 and 1995—1990–91 was the year of "Options for Change"—expenditure on naval procurement and sea equipment fell more than the combined fall in expenditure on land and air equipment. In real terms, there was a decline of 41.3 per cent. in naval procurement, compared with a fall of 18.5 per cent. for land equipment and 16.7 per cent. for air equipment. Over the same period, the Ministry of Defence budget decreased by 18.3 per cent.

It is quite clear from those figures that the Royal Navy has taken the brunt of the reductions in Ministry of Defence spending since 1990 and 1991. Given our maritime role and our unique contribution to NATO forces, many people will ask why those cuts have so deeply impacted on the Royal Navy. The reductions have been twice as heavy in expenditure terms for the Navy as the equivalent reductions for the Army and the Royal Air Force.

No one can argue against the concept of competitive procurement, because it clearly provides the taxpayer, through the Ministry of Defence, with value for money. However, as the recent report by the Defence Select Committee and the Trade and Industry Select Committee has revealed, there are real concerns among those in industry about how that policy is being implemented. I must say that it will be difficult to sustain the policy for much longer, as the industry continues to contract and rationalise.

There are a number of particular concerns to which I should like to draw attention. First, reliance on price as the final determinant ignores the need to maintain strategic capability. We have already lost a UK capability in image intensifier tube manufacturing. I think that the Select Committee was right to comment that there is a need to adopt a long-term approach to the retention of strategic capabilities, and to build that into future procurement policies.

Secondly, competitive procurement tends to undervalue the need to maintain the technological base of the United Kingdom's defence companies. The Ministry of Defence should work more closely with the DTI in that sphere. I welcome what the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said today about the Government's response to the report from the Defence Select Committee and the Trade and Industry Select Committee. It demonstrates movement, and a recognition of some deficiencies in the Government's procurement policies.

Thirdly, companies require more guidance from the Government about their future requirements, which of course was a Select Committee recommendation. That point appears to have been accepted by the Government, which I welcome. The seminar conducted in July by chief executives of defence companies and MOD officials and Ministers was a welcome development. However, it is important that timetables should be adhered to once requirements have been identified.

That did not happen with the batch 2 Trafalgar class update programme, which is currently running almost three years behind schedule. That three-year delay is bound to have adverse consequences for employment and maintaining vital skills in my constituency.

Finally, I should like to refer to some specific issues that are of concern to my constituents. I am thinking in particular about the contract to replace HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, and the prime contractorship for the new Trafalgar class submarines. As for the batch 2 Trafalgar class programme, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that the decision to award the prime contract to the GEC-Marconi team and not to VSEL was a huge disappointment to my constituents. The loss of the prime contract has created a mood of real uncertainty in my constituency.

In a letter dated 22 January this year to the Prime Minister, Tom Campbell, the chief executive of Barrow borough council, said: We do not expect the Government simply to hand out work to GEC Marine but we do believe that the Government has a responsibility to the skilled work force of the town and the thousands who have already lost their jobs. We do need your help to alleviate the fear which hangs over every household in Barrow as a result of the now precarious and uncertain defence procurement strategy. There is a real concern in my constituency about what VSEL's role will be in the construction of those new submarines for the Royal Navy. I understand, and obviously accept, that the allocation of work is a matter for the prime contractor. However, I hope and expect that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be able to give me some reassurance tonight that he accepts that the expertise and skills of VSEL workers will be fully utilised in the construction of the Royal Navy's submarines.

It is particularly important to bear in mind—the Minister referred to it—VSEL's role, for many years, as the United Kingdom's submarine specialist. The Minister referred in particular to our success in completing the Trident programme to time and to cost. I hope that he is not now contemplating a situation in which the skills and expertise that have been built up in VSEL are put at risk. He must make it his business to ensure that my constituents are fully involved in the construction of those submarines.

Several hon. Members have referred to the replacement programme for the landing platform docks HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I am afraid that those contracts are quite substantially behind schedule. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that he expects that those contracts will be placed in the near future. My hope is that the contracts will be placed towards the end of April. I hope that he can confirm that he is also working towards that timetable.

The Navy is clearly undergoing substantial changes. It is also true that the Royal Navy continues to enjoy a worldwide reputation. There is no doubt that it will do all that it can, in the present circumstances, not only to maintain that reputation but to build on it. In doing so, it will continue to have the full support and confidence of the House.

7.35 pm
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

During the annual Navy debate, it is usual to hear many hon. Members making speeches to maintain Royal Navy establishments in their constituencies or a special plea that the Royal Navy has already seen too many cuts. I intend to put a somewhat different case, and call for massive cuts in the Royal Navy's Trident nuclear programme.

I do so for a number of reasons. The total lifetime cost of Trident—including construction, deployment, repair and decommissioning—is about £50,000 million. That is somewhat different from the £11,500 million that the Government quote, but that is only in relation to construction costs. Even the low figure of £11,500 million is an obscene waste of money.

As I understand it, about £10,000 million has already been spent on Trident. That means that thousands of millions of pounds could be saved if we cancelled the Trident programme now. Much of that money could be reinvested in communities such as mine in Blaenau Gwent or other parts of the world where people are in desperate need of money.

The Attorney-General, when he recently gave evidence before the International Court of Justice, argued that nuclear weapons could be used legally in accordance with the right to self-defence as recognised by article 51 of the United Nations Charter. However, there is no defence. Once one has used those nuclear weapons, all the things and all the people one purports to be defending are destroyed by radiation and other consequences.

The Attorney-General argued that nuclear weapons could be used selectively without causing too much harm to civilians. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), would be wise to heed the warning that came from the recent anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: step back and learn from us. He could also learn from the tragic experiences of the veterans who were involved in atomic tests and who now, 30 or 40 years later, suffer the terrible effects of radiation exposure. The threat of a nuclear winter is also instructive.

Is it not ironic that this week not only the Attorney-General but all hon. Members have in one way or another debated how we can create a far richer and better world? In this debate on the Navy, the same politicians who are supporting Trident to ensure that our future is safe and secure are willing to put the future of the earth in jeopardy, destroying that which hon. Members want to improve. I do not think that we have a right to do that. It would be the gravest crime of all.

We are not only saying that we are willing to destroy people who are living, but, as someone once said, we are willing to cancel the lives of people who are not yet born. That is what is at stake when we debate nuclear weapons. It is not the dangerous nonsense extolled by the Attorney-General and other Members of the House.

The second reason for chopping the Trident budget is that the Trident programme distorts the entire defence budget, in particular the Navy budget. So Trident should be cancelled now, and we should cut our financial losses, in the knowledge that we must avoid potential disaster.

There is another financial reason for sinking Trident now. Rob Green, a retired nuclear submarine commander, argues that both Polaris and Trident are worse than useless, because they undermine our security by provoking the greater danger that we face. He rightly recognises that, if we are to continue to go down the nuclear road, we cannot argue that other countries which are at present non-nuclear should not join us on that road. Indeed, by our very act of maintaining our nuclear weapons, we encourage those countries to follow us down that road.

Sir Henry Leech, the First Sea Lord, was the first to describe Trident as a cuckoo in the naval nest", meaning that Trident stole money from other parts of the Navy budget. Commander Green also points out that Richard Sharpe, then also a captain on the Royal Navy staff, later wrote in 1988–89: Because funding for Trident has come mainly from the naval share of the defence budget it is having an increasingly detrimental effect on the equipment programme for the rest of the Fleet. Although I do not personally argue for the redistribution of savings made by cancelling Trident to other parts of the Navy's equipment programme, it is clear that some very senior naval officers have come to recognise that Trident has been funded at a serious cost to other parts of the Navy.

My third and last, but not least, reason for cutting the Trident budget is not based on saving finances. It is based on saving this beautiful green planet of ours from the threat of nuclear devastation. Let no one be in any doubt that Trident promotes nuclear proliferation, while the Government claim to combat it.

In the 1995 "Statement on the Defence Estimates", the Government stated: Under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in 1970, the United Kingdom is committed to work towards nuclear disarmament (and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control). Successive Governments have taken this commitment very seriously. The United Kingdom has only ever deployed the minimum deterrent necessary for security and has been at the forefront of international endeavours to develop the stability in international relations that is the essential step towards disarmament. And, with the end of the Cold War, the Government has made major reductions in the size of British nuclear forces. I suppose that it is some kind of progress that a document produced by the Ministry of Defence even recognised the existence of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. One would not have thought that it existed from listening to a succession of Ministers at the Dispatch Box during Defence questions, defending our purchase and deployment of Trident. It has been demonstrated many times that Trident is a significant increase in our capability, and therefore a serious act of nuclear proliferation. Even if the number of warheads is kept similar to the number deployed on Polaris, the qualitative difference in targeting capacity and accuracy of the missile system makes it a much more potent weapon.

Last month, the United Kingdom began negotiations in Geneva to reach agreement on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. The British Government were diplomatically dragged to the conference table, having spent years constructing more and more exotic reasons for postponing the start of test ban talks. The delays were obviously intended to permit the completion of the design tests on Trident warheads. It does not take a genius to work that out.

It is counter-productive for the Government to back the French nuclear testing programme, which undermines the attempts to achieve a test ban treaty. Some of us warned not so many months ago, and it has now happened, that radioactive iodine would leak from the nuclear tests conducted at Mururoa. The French Government even admit that that has occurred. Yet we were informed by both the French and British Governments that there was no risk of such environmental contamination. So an apology from the Minister when he replies to the debate would not go amiss.

Whether we are for or against Trident, I should have thought that, in view of its cost and the terrible consequences if the warheads were ever used, the Government would encourage the provision of the maximum information on that and related subjects. Unfortunately, that is not so. The Minister refused to send a copy of the annual progress report on Trident to each and every Member of Parliament. He argued that to do so would not be a sensible use of resources, even though he had to admit that the cost would not have exceeded £1,000. How is it that the Government can manage to find £50,000 million to support Trident, but cannot find £1,000 to distribute a report on the development of that weapon to Members of this House?

7.45 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I am tempted to begin by quoting the great—I use the word deliberately and advisedly—predecessor of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) by saying, "Hands up who agrees with that lot."

Mr. Llew Smith

My predecessor agreed.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Absolutely. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) nodding in agreement. We have heard the authentic voice of old Labour articulated with a sincerity and passion that we all admire and which any true democrat respects, but which is light years away from the real world in which we live. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) nodding his head so vigorously. The speech of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent moved him so literally that he left the Chamber as his hon. Friend began to extol the virtues of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament cause.

Dr. Reid

Lest any discourtesy be implied, let me inform the hon. Gentleman that an urgent telephone call led me to leave. As for our position on the nuclear deterrent, despite the sincerity of my hon. Friend's view, I have made our position plain from the Front Bench. We do not agree with him.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's reassurance. Of course we all accept that he had to leave for a telephone call. It is a matter of some relief that the official policy of Her Majesty's Opposition is now more in tune with the realities of the world.

As I listened to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, closed my eyes and enjoyed his rhetoric, I could see the Opposition Benches peopled, as they were when I came into the House in 1970, with serried ranks of those who would have agreed with him. No one can for half a second dispute the integrity of the hon. Gentleman's views and his convictions, but if the view that he espouses now had prevailed in the 1970s, we would not be having this debate in a world in which the iron curtain is down and the Soviet Union has disintegrated and from which, although there are many real dangers to the peace of the world, the terrible threat of nuclear war has been largely removed.

I believe that the doctrine of deterrence, which was espoused by the post-war Labour Government and continued by the Government led by the illustrious grandfather of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, and continued beyond that, saved the freedoms that we enjoy and take for granted.

Mr. Smith

I take all the hon. Gentleman's criticisms as compliments, so I thank him. The hon. Gentleman defends nuclear weapons, so I would like to ask him a question that I have asked others. If the crunch came and he were in a position of power, would he be willing to use those nuclear weapons? In anticipation of their use, what devastation would be inflicted on our environment and population worldwide? I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will answer the questions that the Minister has failed to answer.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Nobody can doubt the devastating power of nuclear weapons and how terrible it would be if they had to be used. Their use would represent the failure of the doctrine of deterrence. However, if one has a deterrent, in the ultimate resort, one has to be prepared to use it.

Mr. Smith

Would the hon. Gentleman press the button?

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman should not get so agitated. I am answering his question quite unequivocally and explicitly. Yes, of course I would. If the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Clement Attlee and others had not had similar courage in 1945, terrible as the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, the war would have lasted longer, many more people would have been killed and we would have inherited a much darker world. That is now accepted across the broad range of political opinion in the hon. Gentleman's party, my party and the Liberal Democrat party.

I was tempted into a digression at the beginning of my speech. Perhaps I should not have been, although the essence of debate is to reply to what has been said. I should have started with an apology to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I came into the Chamber hoping that I would have the pleasure of listening to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), who told me that he was hoping to speak. I had no intention of speaking in the debate and, for the first time in nearly 26 years in the House, I am speaking in a debate without having heard the opening speeches. That is very bad and I am sorry, but I thought it even worse to have depopulated Benches and not to speak.

I had not realised how many of my hon. Friends, who usually take part in these debates with great eloquence and knowledge, had other pressing engagements this evening. That is a serious issue for all those concerned with the regulation of business in the House. Jopling advocate as I was and remain, it is clear that we have to re-examine the structure of Thursday's business.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Interesting as that observation is, we are debating the Royal Navy, not the Jopling proposals.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was making a passing reference that was entirely relevant. We are debating the Royal Navy and, for the first time in all my years in the House—and I have been here longer than anyone in the Chamber at the moment—I have attended a Royal Navy debate and there has not been a long list of hon. Members who hope to speak, if not a densely packed Chamber.

Britain is a maritime nation or it is nothing. The rich, proud history of our nation is indissolubly tied up with the history of our maritime exploits, both in trade and in war. We should take enormous pride in the way in which the Royal Navy has preserved the freedom of our country over the centuries. We owe a great debt to the Navy and to the men and women who now serve in it. They are as dedicated and as skilful as their predecessors; they are led with distinction, they have equipment and ships of high sophistication and we should be glad of that. We should take comfort from the fact that although the navies of other maritime nations have been savagely cut, the cuts have not been so great here. I should say to my hon. Friend the Minister that they have been greater than I would have liked. I have a number of points to which I hope he will reply.

I am very worried about the lack of auxiliary back-up for the Royal Navy. We all remember the Falklands war—one of the most glorious episodes in recent history for the Royal Navy, which made an invaluable contribution to the success of an incredibly important venture. The Royal Navy could not have done what it did without the assistance of the veritable armada of merchant ships. I wonder whether a similar operation could be mounted today if there were a need for it. It is important that we have regard for our merchant marine.

I have a real vested interest in the subject, as my father was a master mariner. I grew up by the sea and I have a great regard—second only to my regard for the Royal Navy—for those who, over the centuries, have gone down to the sea in ships and occupied their business in great waters as members of the merchant marine. It is sad that so many of those who now serve in the merchant marine do so under flags that are not British. If the red ensign has not disappeared from the surface of the waters, it is a much rarer sight.

I should also mention the fishery protection fleet. My home town was Grimsby in Lincolnshire and I suppose that I am one of the few hon. Members who has gone to sea with a fishing fleet. I took an 18-day trip in a North sea trawler in 1965 when I was seeking to wrest Grimsby from the clutches of the late Anthony Crosland. I did not succeed, of course, although I made a very good friend who remained one until the day he died. Both Anthony Crosland and I took deep-sea voyages with the fishing fleet. It is sad that the fleet has so reduced in size since then.

Is my hon. Friend absolutely confident that our fishery protection vessels are adequate to the different, but still important, tasks that they have to perform in defending our fishermen, who have the most hazardous of all peacetime occupations?

I represent what used to be a mining seat. Alas, the collieries have now closed. I used to say that fishermen and miners had the most hazardous of all occupations, but if I had to say which was more hazardous, it would be that of the fisherman, who cannot go home at night to his wife and family and who battles against the elements for 24 hours a day, often in extremely difficult conditions. Our fishermen deserve every possible protection.

I shall mention two further issues. I know that one has been touched on earlier because, with all the wonders of modern technology, some of us can follow proceedings in the Chamber from our offices. I am not sure that it is altogether a good thing.

I shall not expand on that or you might call me to order again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it gave me the benefit of seeing a colourful performance by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), who referred to the royal yacht. I sincerely hope that there will soon be an announcement of a new royal yacht. It is a marvellous floating ambassador that is also cost-effective. It has been used splendidly by the Queen and members of the royal family and I believe that they deserve another one. Britannia has been used far beyond carrying the sovereign. It has been employed to further Britain's trading interests and Britain's image throughout the world. I hope sincerely that, if it is decided that Britannia cannot, with any economic sense, have another refit, there will be another royal yacht. I am sure that no one would grace its decks with greater aplomb than the grandson of the greatest First Lord of the Admiralty that this country has ever had.

Another subject that causes me great concern was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham. It is, of course, the future of the Royal Naval college at Greenwich. I have been much exercised about the future of what is, by any standard or definition, one of the finest assemblies of historic buildings anywhere in the world. It is rich in history and in architecture. We should all take a pride in these buildings. They encapsulate so much of the best of our past because of the historical events with which they are associated and because they represent the high point of architecture in this country.

Mr. Raynsford

One of the high points.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Yes. One of the high points. I bow, as it were, to the hon. Gentleman's sedentary correction, in whose constituency—lucky man—the buildings are.

I shall never understand what possessed my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government to advertise—albeit, in the pages of Country Life, a good magazine which I take every week—such a marvellous collection of buildings. It was an extraordinary lapse of taste, judgment and sensitivity.

I should like the college to continue in the possession of the Royal Navy. I am not persuaded that the arguments against that are overwhelming. If they are not overwhelming, however, they have at any rate for the moment prevailed. That I accept.

Being ever a realist, and trying to deal with the world as it is and not as I would wish it to be—it would be a very different place if my wishes prevailed—I must accept the premise on which the Government are basing their case, which is that another use must be found. I must accept also that the college has had other uses in the past. It is crucial, however, that the use to which the buildings are put is seemly and appropriate.

There are some buildings that should for ever be part of the national, public heritage—buildings that should never pass out of the control or supervision of government. Pre-eminently in that category are the buildings of the college at Greenwich. Any use that is found for them must be seemly and suitable for the great buildings that they are. The painted hall must still have its proper uses.

I went down the Thames during the summer last year as a guest of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). He was conducting a concert in the chapel at Greenwich. Rostropovich was playing. It was a marvellous evening. We sat in the chapel and had dinner in the painted hall afterwards. We all had an enormous sense of pride. It is—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Minister is peeved because he was not there, perhaps. He would have enjoyed the evening as much as anyone else, I am sure. His love of the good life and his knowledge of music are legendary. Whatever use is found for the college buildings, it is important that such events should continue to take place.

There is a place for great ceremonial service and state occasions at Greenwich. It would be sad if that use were completely taken away. Whoever the new user is and whatever the new use is, they must be compatible with occasional state ceremonial occasions. I am a great believer in state ceremonial; it lifts our hearts and cheers us up in a dull world. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind.

Above all else, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that whoever occupies the buildings—he will be extraordinarily privileged to use them—is British. I do not say that in a narrow chauvinistic sense. Can one imagine the French ever leasing Versailles to a Japanese correspondence college? Can one ever imagine the Dutch leasing the Mauritshuis in The Hague? Change of use might be on a par with that.

The college is part of the fabric of our nation's history. It is part of our birthright as a nation. It cannot and must not pass out of British hands. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that any future use must have some reference to our maritime past. There must be something of an education content. In saying that, I am not suggesting that there is only one answer or one possible end user. Young men and women who have the privilege of learning in a fine and historic environment have great privilege. We must ensure that some young men and women continue to have that privilege at Greenwich.

I beg of my hon. Friend the Minister to tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there are some on the Conservative Benches—I suspect that the same applies to occupants of the Opposition Benches—who take the view that any lease to any foreign organisation, company or country would be completely unacceptable. Much as it would grieve me to take such action, I could not accept such a lease and I would do everything possible to frustrate it. I cannot believe that it will happen because I have enormous confidence in the good sense and judgment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who in the past fortnight has demonstrated his many diverse qualities in a brilliant way in the House. He has my committed support. I cannot believe that he would listen to any ministerial suggestion that Greenwich should go to any foreign bidder. It must not, and the suggestion must not even be made.

If it takes a little—

Mr. Soames

If I may make a respectful suggestion to my hon. Friend in the spirit of a friendship that has existed during the short time that I have been a Member of this place, I think that he is making heavy weather in a naval debate. There has never been any suggestion that Greenwich would ever be used in the way that he fears or suggests. He rightly says that such use would be wholly unthinkable.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend. If I was making heavy weather, it was because I was hoping that my hon. Friend would rise to make the sort of statement that we have just heard.

During my time in the Chamber this evening we have had two historic pronouncements. We have had an unequivocal assurance on Trident from the Opposition Front Bench and my hon. Friend's unequivocal assurance. On that note of happy amity, I am delighted to resume my place.

8.9 pm

Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on his brilliant extemporaneous speech. He emptied the Gallery when he started, but he has since attracted four back in, so he has done well. I might add that I come from Barton on Humber, which is near Grimsby, and my grandfather was a canal man. He used to travel to Leeds and York from the cement works near there, so we have a mutual interest.

In my constituency there is water, but it is used only by commercial ships, not naval ones. We had a Royal Naval Auxiliary Service launch until a couple of years ago. I speak as someone with an interest in naval affairs and as someone who is British and takes a pride in our naval history. Mainly for that reason, I joined the armed forces trust this year, with the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen). We have been around and about. I shall tell the House a little about it and about what I have seen and heard from speaking to people.

So far I have been to Northern Ireland, where I rowed on Loch Neagh, which was the most terrifying thing that I had ever done until I got out on to the Irish sea in a minesweeper and was picked up by a Sea King helicopter in a force 6 gale. According to the sailors, minesweepers in the Irish sea roll on wet grass. I admit that I could not eat my lunch, although I managed to keep down my breakfast, but the hon. Member for Shoreham ate his and mine. The hon. Gentleman and I have also been to HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, where we were put through the firefighting course. As soon as I got back to Ipswich, I changed all the extinguishers in my office, because they were the wrong ones. We have been out on RFA Fort George, off Plymouth. We have been to Northwood maritime command centre. I commend it to anybody, because it is much more interesting than sitting here for four hours waiting to speak.

To a man and a woman, the people whom I have seen in the Royal Navy in this short time have been thoroughly professional, and absolutely dedicated to the service. They work for some 24 hours a day. They are loyal to the Government of the day, no matter what party the Government may be. When I spoke to them and asked them about things, they were straight talkers as well. I very much enjoyed that. I am sure that the hon. Member for Shoreham would agree.

I shall not speak at length about how wonderful the Navy is, as many hon. Members have done that today, and I agree with them, but I did see a number of problems or the odd cloud on the horizon. It was expected that women on ships would create a problem. That is not so, as everybody has told me. There are currently 500 women on ships. Most are junior ratings, but some are senior, and there have been no problems other than those related to accommodation on some of the older ships because of the necessity to have separate mess areas and toilets, but the new ships take account of the fact that there are women on board, and they have no such problems. I am sorry that many women on ships are drifting into jobs that women tend to do on land—stewarding, cooking and so on, which is not quite in the spirit. There is plenty of time for them to develop other interests, and I am sure that they will.

My second point, which is a problem, relates to the Navy's equipment. People say that there are about 35 destroyers and frigates, three carriers, two landing ships and so on, but it is not quite as rosy in certain areas. Yes, we have three carriers—HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious and HMS Ark Royal—but at any given time one of them is tied up, and there are only two air groups for them. Therefore, in effect, at a time of war, there would be only two carriers, as one does not carry anything, unless one plundered RAF or Army Air Corps units to put on it, in which case, presumably, they would be taken away from where they should be in a time of war. I ask the Minister to tell us when he replies whether that was intended, or is it that way to save money? The House would want to know.

A worse example in some ways is RFA Fort George, a 30,000 tonne Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship that carries supplies, food, fuel and ammunition. It is so big and has so much on it that it is not allowed into Plymouth harbour. I was going to take that up with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), but he is not here at the moment. It has four areas where 20 mm guns can be placed. It is equipped with an area for Sea Wolf missile systems. It has a hangar and facilities for five Sea King helicopters. But it has no guns, Sea Wolf missile systems or Sea King helicopters. To reach it, one has to fly from Plymouth airport in a private firm's helicopters, which are not allowed to fly in bad weather because they do not have radar. That might be planned, but it does not sound too clever.

Mr. Soames

I am sorry to interrupt a thoroughly thoughtful and well-informed speech. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that, were that ship to need that equipment, it would have it. As to the helicopters flying from Plymouth for sea training operations, that is an entirely sensible and extremely practical step, and flag officers sea training and all those involved report that it is working extremely well.

Mr. Cann

I am pleased that the Minister can reassure me of that. I can tell him that guns will be provided, because they are coming off the batch 1 type 22s that have been sold to Brazil.

Mr. Soames

What is wrong with that?

Mr. Cann

There is nothing wrong with that. I am merely agreeing with the Minister.

When we left the ship, the helicopters would not come out because the weather was bad, so it is not quite as good as the Minister says. We had to suffer the indignity of being picked up by a Lynx helicopter from a Dutch frigate. I should rather have gone by the Royal Navy. A Dutch frigate is an eye opener and a culture shock when one has been on a Royal Navy vessel.

I understand that there are problems with the computerised weapons systems on the type 23s. The Minister might care to elucidate that when he replies. We are selling off on timetable the batch 1 type 22s, but we do not appear to be introducing the type 23s on timetable. In six months, will we still be able to say that we have a destroyer/frigate force of about 35? According to my arithmetic, that does not appear to be so.

Another matter that I wish to discuss is what is euphemistically known in the private sector as downsizing. For example, on the type 22, the three batches have different complements, but they range between 224 per ship and 273. The type 23, depending on which book one reads, has between 157 and 173, so the complement of a type 23 is about four fifths the complement of a type 22, although they do the same job. In a way, that is good, because it means that the ship can be smaller, so it can be built for less money, it uses less fuel and less materiel, and one is paying fewer sailors.

The difference is made up—at least in theory—by the introduction of high technology to control weapons systems, and so on, which means that fewer crew are needed to operate the ship. That must be right. However, there are disadvantages. There is a problem with releasing sailors to allow them the leave to which they are entitled. When people are sick, that causes a problem. There is also a problem with rostering on occasion. I can see that, in wartime, there would be a problem getting a sufficient number of damage control parties together, compared with the number of excess sailors who would be off duty, for example, on a type 22. I ask the Minister to take up those points when he responds.

I hardly like to mention this, but there is a huge problem on the horizon as a result of the European Court's ruling that homosexuality should be recognised in the European Union. I know that that ruling has exercised the minds of those on board ship and in Northwood—and, no doubt, in the Ministry of Defence. The Navy is currently conducting a vast survey of people who must live in close proximity on ships, asking them whether they think that those who are openly homosexual should be allowed to join the service. I do not wish to predict the outcome of that survey, but it has been suggested that there will be strong opposition to the proposal.

I shall not express a personal opinion at this stage, but I will say this. If the European Union must tell us that we must have straight cucumbers, or that we cannot eat King Edward potatoes, let it do so; but no one should be allowed to tell us how we should run our ships, which are crucial to our nation's future. I believe that—irrespective of its views on whether homosexuality should be recognised—the House should oppose the European Court in this case.

Members of the armed forces lead a vigorous life. Those who fight wars must be fit and strong, and able to move fast. They therefore tend to be pensioned off much earlier than people like us: hon. Members can drag on until they are 65. I understand that there has been some talk of taking service men's pension rights away from them—reducing the pension, or perhaps getting rid of it altogether. I cannot believe that the Government would propose such a move, but I should be grateful if the Minister assured us that they will guarantee service men's pension rights.

8.21 pm
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Because my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar)—who is responsible for procurement issues—is to wind up the debate for the Opposition, and because the Minister of State for Defence Procurement opened the debate, I shall make two points on that subject.

In an intervention, I mentioned the Polaris submarine HMS Renown. In 1993, its refit had cost £155 million. Since then it has been mothballed; it has sat in dock waiting to be decommissioned. That has cost more millions of pounds, and we do not know how much longer it will take. The Minister said that it had taken part in three training exercises, but I thought that a pretty poor response. The money could have been much better spent on schools and the national health service. Ministers in this Conservative Government complain that they have not enough money for the armed forces. How do they justify the waste of £155 million?

The other procurement issue was raised at Question Time by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). He was told that stores and equipment to the value of some £67 million had been lost in the past five years—and that did not include what was lost in Germany. Five per cent. was lost in Northern Ireland. The lost equipment included a Royal Navy thermal imager, a set of rockets and tanks. I am not sure how the Ministry of Defence managed to lose tanks, but it does not say much for its control system. When my hon. Friend asked for a list of items that had been lost, he was told that the MOD did not keep a central record of the loss of any item worth less than £100,000. What sort of accounting system is that? Is it thought that anything worth under £100,000 does not matter to the taxpayer?

Mr. Soames


Mr. Cohen

I shall happily give way, so that the Minister can explain why that money was squandered when it could have been much better spent elsewhere.

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues queried the cost of the refit of HMS Renown. The decision to carry out the refit was taken at a time when the Trident programme was still many years away from fruition. It was essential to ensure the continuation of the cycle of patrols of Resolution class submarines until the Vanguard class was in service. It was a wholly rational decision. Because the Trident programme had gone so well, we were able to take Renown out of service earlier than would otherwise have been the case. That was not a gross waste of money; the deterrent has remained operational throughout—quite rightly.

Mr. Cohen

That will not do. Millions of pounds were spent on the Trident programme as well. Spending money on both Polaris and Trident must be regarded as a lack of planning. In fact, the Trident programme has not gone so wonderfully, but I shall say more about that later.

In a future debate I may deal with the MOD's new procurement building, which has also cost millions of pounds. It is a castle with a moat and its own railway, surrounded by hundreds of acres of land. Presumably the moat is there so that Navy vessels can sail round it when they are tested before being bought. Now, however, I want to say something about the economics of naval nuclear weapons, a subject that brings us automatically to Trident. Let me ask a simple question: will Trident be the last nuclear weapons system deployed by the United Kingdom?

I ask that question in the context of simple economic necessity rather than politics or strategy. The current official estimate for the purchase of Trident is £11,682 million. I asked the Library to calculate the purchase cost of Polaris in current prices, and it came up with a figure in the region of between £5 billion and £5.5 billion. As with any other military equipment, replacements cost much more than what is being replaced. How much would a follow-on to Trident cost? Between £20 billion and £30 billion, or perhaps more—and that would be just the cost of acquiring the system.

There were many hidden costs in the purchase of Trident, such as the improvement of Aldermaston, which went so badly wrong. The A90 plutonium processing complex, which was due to be operational in 1986, is still not fully operational, and millions of pounds are still required to be spent on the A91 liquid waste facility to get it up to scratch. The cost of those two buildings probably exceeds £1 billion. Many facilities at Faslane and Coulport were not included as Trident works, but were essential to its operations.

If Trident were replaced, it is certain that other parts of the nuclear infrastructure would have to be replaced as well, simply on grounds of age. There would possibly be a much larger contribution to research and development costs, even if a replacement system were bought off the shelf from the United States. The total bill would be more than £30 billion—possibly more than £40 billion in today's prices. Indeed, those figures could be an underestimate. In times of public spending squeezes—indeed, more such squeezes are more likely than our being awash with money—would any Government spend that sort of money?

If Trident were replaced, incurring the high costs to which I referred, the United Kingdom could simply say goodbye to a modern Navy in any other respect. The programme to replace Trident would have to start in five or 10 years, and would probably cost £1 billion a year for the first few years, rising thereafter and taking an increasingly large chunk out of our defence budget.

If Trident is not to be replaced—I have no doubt that, barring some appalling change in the world, even a Tory Government would not spend such money on such a programme in 10 years' time—it must be accepted that nuclear weapons are not essential to the defence of the country. If the argument that Trident is too expensive is accepted, the Government should also accept that the sky is not going to fall on British heads if we do not have nuclear weapons in 20 or 30 years. The crux of the matter is that if nuclear weapons can be sacrificed in 20 or 30 years time because we do not need them or cannot afford them, are they really needed now?

It is worth looking at how much Trident will cost from now to the end of its life—and therefore how much could be saved if rational decisions on defence policy were made now. About £3 billion has yet to be spent on the acquisition of Trident. The Government say that Trident is also likely to cost about£200 million a year to run, although that figure is considerably hazy, which is understandable as the system is not yet fully up and running. Such haziness pervades all calculations of expenditure on Trident.

Parallels can be drawn with civil nuclear power. For years, costs were hidden away in other budgets to make it look cheaper than it was. Once the books were open to outside scrutiny, the creative accountancy quickly unravelled. Massive expenditure on infrastructure, which would not have been needed if Trident had not been acquired, was attributed to other budgets. Billions of pounds' worth of construction at Aldermaston and Faslane have been hidden from the Trident budget. In future that will not be possible, as all nuclear infrastructure will be in support of Trident and any possible successor to it. There will be far less chance to meet such costs through other budgets and claim that the expenditure was for more general usage, as has been done up to now.

The other costs to be borne in mind are environmental. It is now recognised that the costs of decommissioning military nuclear facilities in the United States will run into hundreds of billions of dollars over coming decades. There is no comparable available information for the UK. The Government have been very slow with a clear-up programme—I refer to the decommissioning of Renown and other Polaris submarines—and do not talk about how much it will cost. There will be a big clear-up bill. In view of costs in the United States, our bill could not be less than tens of billions of pounds.

Another factor to be considered is the increased environmental and health standards that the public now expect. At the height of the cold war, many members of the public were prepared to tolerate radioactive discharges from Aldermaston or Sellafield, because they thought that it was a price worth paying in view of what they saw as the Soviet threat. Those same people will not now tolerate such lax, cancer-inducing behaviour. They expect the Government to make a much greater effort in lessening health hazards and the environmental impact of nuclear power, which will of course cost a great deal more money.

In some ways, it is very sad to return to the economic arguments against nuclear weapons. I should have thought—and have of course argued—that the moral and military arguments were so strong that they would have won the day long ago. I say to my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who made commitments from the Front Bench, that they must face the economic arguments, just as Defence Ministers must at the moment.

Mr. Soames


Mr. Cohen

The Treasury will have an increased influence when it sees the costs involved, especially the cost of a replacement programme.

Mr. Soames

indicated assent.

Mr. Cohen

The Minister is nodding. I am pleased that he agrees with me. He must therefore accept that the Conservative Government will end up not replacing Trident because of the same economic argument and that a Conservative Treasury will say that enough is enough. Despite their macho stands, both main parties will have to come to terms with the enormous cost of maintaining nuclear weapons and replacing the Trident programme.

In the past few days, the House has heard the chant, "Do as I say, not as I do," passed back and forth across the Chamber in cheap political gibes. Britain's approach to nuclear weapons is relevant to that chant because we are saying that we must keep nuclear weapons, while we tell other countries that they do not need them and cannot have them. That is one of the most obscene and hypocritical cases of, "Do as I say, not as I do," that I have ever come across.

The Government need to respond to the enormous waste of money in procurement. That waste could well continue, not only in a Trident replacement programme, but in current expenditure. It would be far better for the country if we did not waste the money, but spent it on the growing social problems in housing, education and the national health service.

If Trident is to stay in service to the end of its operational life, the economic cost of replacing it will be too high for any Government to bear. If we accept that the country will not be able to afford the costs of being a nuclear power in 20 to 30 years, why not get rid of nuclear weapons now? We could save the money and put it to far better use.

8.38 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) will forgive me if I do not follow his line of argument. I propose—as I think every hon. Member is already aware—to focus my remarks primarily on the future of the site occupied by the Royal Naval college in Greenwich.

I very strongly endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on the scandal of empty residential property owned by the Ministry of Defence, much of which is found in areas such as Plymouth. I have visited his constituency and seen many former Ministry of Defence properties left empty, and learnt of the important positive approach now being adopted by Plymouth city council, in conjunction with several housing associations, to bring those properties back into use for people in housing need.

It is a cause of considerable sadness to me that the Ministry, in breach of the Conservative manifesto commitment to use surplus houses for such purposes, now proposes to privatise the married quarters estate in a way that will not only deny those homes to people in need, but will probably lead to a substantially increased revenue cost to the Ministry itself, for the leases on the properties it still requires for its own purposes.

I now return to the main focus of my speech, the Royal Naval college. In previous debates on the Royal Navy, and more recently on Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, I have spoken about the site's history, its magnificent architectural heritage and the high quality of training undertaken by the Royal Naval college and the joint service defence college, which are both located on the site at Greenwich.

I have often paid tribute to the work undertaken by the commander and staff of the college, who have maintained a consistent standard of excellence in the training that they offer. I do not feel that I need elaborate on any of that tonight; I believe that it is fully appreciated by all hon. Members with an interest in the Navy.

However, the future of the site is shrouded in uncertainty, as a result of the decision taken a little less than a year ago to choose Camberley as the site for the new tri-service college and the consequent decision to cease the activities of the Royal Naval college and the joint service defence college at Greenwich in 1997.

Many times, both in the House and elsewhere, I have raised serious doubts about the merits of that decision, and about the way in which it was taken. The consultation exercise preceding the decision was a most unsatisfactory affair, involving the presentation of information in a way not helpful to anyone trying to make an informed assessment of the merits of the respective sites under consideration. It also contained several financial assumptions that were questionable, to say the least. I took up many of those at the time with the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

The whole tenor of the consultation, the document and the financial forecasts were all clearly designed to convey the impression that Camberley was a cheaper, easier and more cost-effective solution than Greenwich. Those assumptions were always suspect, and what little information has seeped into the public arena in recent months tends to confirm that.

According to the Daily Express of 22 January, there are now real fears that Camberley will not be ready in time to accommodate the colleges being displaced from Greenwich. A senior defence source was quoted as saying that Navy and RAF officers would become "refugees", and would have to find a home from home at a university somewhere. That in itself is an alarming enough prospect, not least for all the officers expecting to take training courses in 1997–98. But it is not the only cause for concern—and that was not the first press report suggesting that the Government were in trouble over their Camberley plans.

On 16 October last year, The Independent reported defence sources as saying: There are grave doubts whether the 1997 deadline for forming the Tri-Service College can now be met". That article also said that there were serious cost overruns, amounting perhaps to tens of millions of pounds. A senior defence source was again quoted as saying: There is a lot of teeth sucking going on about the scale of the costs involved in the refurbishment of Camberley". The Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who is not now in his place, answered the debate on the defence estimates on 17 October, but he did not answer the questions that I had asked him about whether there was substance in those reports. In a subsequent written answer, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—I am pleased to see that he, at least, is here—assured me that there was no question of the budget for capital costs being exceeded, but he was more equivocal about the revenue costs budget.

I must now ask the Minister those questions again, and I hope that he will give us a full response tonight. Will he tell the House whether the costs, both capital and revenue, of Camberley are turning out in line with the estimates in the consultation paper about the siting of the tri-service college? If not, how much additional expenditure, both capital and revenue, is now anticipated?

Secondly, will the Minister tell us whether the timetable for accommodating all three service colleges at Camberley by 1997 will be met? Can he guarantee that all the staff and all the naval officers due to participate in staff college training in 1997–98 will be accommodated at the Camberley site as promised? If the answer to any of those questions is no, that must raise serious doubts about the basis of the decision to site the tri-service college at Camberley rather than at Greenwich.

Furthermore, if there is any question of the timetable being delayed, surely the right course must be to reconsider the decision to close the Greenwich site in 1997. Rather than consigning officers to temporary accommodation in some as yet unidentified university elsewhere, would it not make sense to keep the Royal Naval college and the joint service defence college operating at Greenwich for at least one more year?

If there were a pressing and appropriate alternative use for the Greenwich site in the autumn of 1997, there might be a case for saying that it must be closed, even if it cannot be guaranteed that there will be accommodation at Camberley for the people who will not now be able to attend courses at Greenwich. However, all we hear about what is happening to the Greenwich site suggests that that is not the case.

Despite substantial expenditure on a marketing operation by a well-known firm of estate agents, the Government have managed to secure the interest of only a handful of potential users in taking over one of the world's finest complexes of historic buildings. That must raise questions about the competence both of the Ministers responsible for the marketing exercise and of the estate agents who were selling the site—Messrs. Knight, Frank, who apparently lost Mr. Rutley along the way.

Mr. Soames

They ditched him.

Mr. Raynsford

If it was Rutley's fault, will the Minister tell us? Was it Rutley who made a mess of the operation, and is that why his name no longer features in the firm's name?

If reports in last week's edition of The Sunday Telegraph are to be believed, only three bids appeared worthy of short-listing, and two of those were from overseas. The Sunday Telegraph suggests that those consisted of one from a far eastern consortium that wants to turn Greenwich into a language school, offering learning breaks for overseas business men, and another from an American university.

It is hardly surprising that that prospect has alarmed hon. Members on both sides of the House, as well as people throughout the country. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) made a powerful speech on the subject, in which he spoke eloquently of the alarm and concern that he and many others feel at the prospect of that magnificent site, one of the country's finest historical and architectural gems, being made over to some foreign organisation with no roots in this country, no association with the Royal Navy, and probably only a limited interest in the wonders of Greenwich, other than as a prestigious site for an operation that could perfectly well take place elsewhere.

In response to a question from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, the Minister said that there was no question of that. I took his assurance to mean that there is no question of an overseas bidder having the use of the buildings. I want to press the Minister on that matter.

If that assurance was as I and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South understood it to be, and if what is written in The Sunday Telegraph is correct, the far eastern consortium which wants to use the site for a language school and the American university should be told emphatically now that their bids are no longer being considered.

If the Minister can assure us that all overseas bids are now ruled out, it is only fair that those bidders be made aware of that immediately. If the bids are not ruled out, the assurance that the Minister has given us tonight is highly suspect. It must certainly raise questions whether we are being told one thing while the Government are contemplating doing another. I hope that we get a clear and unequivocal assurance from the Minister tonight that the bids have been ruled out, and that only an appropriate source involving a British-based organisation with a concern for the naval and historical heritage of Greenwich will be entertained.

To help rescue the Government from the self-inflicted crisis that this botched marketing exercise has produced, Ministers sensibly agreed before Christmas to appoint a committee of experts to consider the various expressions of interest in the site and to advise the Secretary of State on its future use and management. Given the unpromising way in which the operation has been conducted up to this point—an operation that would not have brought credit on the Royal Navy or any other service had it been a military operation—I have the greatest sympathy for Lord Sainsbury, Lord Farringdon, Dame Jennifer Jenkins and Jocelyn Stevens, who have been given the task of bailing the Government out.

Having said that, I am very relieved that it is those individuals, rather than the Secretary of State—whose judgment in this matter has been shown to be flawed—who are now wrestling with the problem. I wish them well, and I am sure that they will have a proper regard for the national interest. I am sure also that they will take proper account of the strength of public opinion on the matter. If they are to do the job properly, they must be freed from the constraints of an unreasonably tight timetable. They must also not be subject to the limitations of the number of bidders that have been identified to date.

There is a case for keeping the Greenwich complex operating as a service college for at least another year to avoid the spectre of officers being camped out in some other university because they cannot be accommodated at Camberley. Clearly it would be logical to maintain the Greenwich site as a training college throughout that year. That would allow more time for other potential uses of the Greenwich site to be evaluated, and a really appropriate use, or mix of uses, to be agreed.

Equally, if there are anxieties about the calibre of the bids that have been received in response to Messrs. Knight, Frank's marketing exercise—

Mr. Soames

What happened to Rutley?

Mr. Raynsford

The name does not trip off the tongue as well without Rutley. But there we are—apparently the firm is now called Knight, Frank. If the calibre of the bids that have been received in response to the marketing exercise is inadequate—and we have every reason to suspect that it is not impressive—would it not be more sensible now to undertake a more sensitive and wide-ranging trawl of other possible uses to ensure that a truly appropriate use is guaranteed for these incomparable buildings?

Having said that, I have no wish to imply that the university of Greenwich—which is, according to The Sunday Telegraph, the only British short-listed bidder—would not be an appropriate organisation to occupy at least a part of the site. I believe that the university has a valid claim that should be seriously considered. I also believe that the national maritime museum, which occupies an equally fine site across the road from the college, has advanced a strong case for taking over responsibility for running the painted hall and the chapel—the two elements of the complex most likely to attract the largest number of visitors, assuming the site is to be made properly available to the public.

The two options—the university of Greenwich and the national maritime museum—should certainly be the subject of serious consideration. But I find it difficult to believe that, for a complex of buildings of such importance, there are not other possibilities. We are talking about one of the country's most important heritage sites. Can one imagine any other country considering the future uses of such a magnificent group of buildings, but limiting the options simply to those who have replied to an estate agent's advertisement? It is inconceivable that any other country would act in that way, and the sooner the British Government recognise their mistake and start trying to find an appropriate way forward, the better.

The Select Committee examining the Armed Forces Bill will shortly take evidence at Greenwich about the future of the site. I have no doubt that the members of the Committee will receive a great deal of valuable evidence and advice in the course of that day on the appropriate uses for the buildings currently occupied by the Royal Naval college. There is considerable interest already in Greenwich at the prospect of the visit by the Select Committee, and many people are eager to attend—some to give evidence, others to hear the deliberations of the Committee. That is entirely appropriate and right, and I very much welcome the decision of the Committee to take evidence in Greenwich on the matter.

The discussions relate to the changes proposed in clause 26 of the Armed Forces Bill to the Greenwich Hospital Act 1869, which concerns the uses to which the site can be put. I am sure that members of the Committee will want to consider appropriate amendments to clause 26 in order to circumscribe the wide-ranging powers that the Secretary of State proposes to give himself. As it is currently drafted, clause 26 empowers the Secretary of State to hand over these magnificent buildings on a lease of up to 150 years on whatever terms he determines to whomever he considers appropriate. These are extraordinarily wide-ranging powers for buildings of such importance.

It is not acceptable to allow the future of Greenwich to be decided on the say-so of the Secretary of State, whose zeal for privatisation, I am afraid, has become all too well known. He might allow that particular prejudice to stand in the way of the national interest in ensuring an appropriate public use for these incomparable buildings. After the depressing, but salutary, example of county hall—just five miles to the west along the River Thames—we really cannot allow the possibility of Greenwich suffering a similar fate.

I made it clear on Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill that I believe it to be incumbent on us to ensure that the legislation guarantees that only suitable and appropriate users can be considered. In this context, a continuing MOD use of the site should not be ruled out. We all know of the long and historic tradition linking Greenwich and the Royal Navy. Many people throughout Britain—not least those with naval connections—feel strongly that that link should be maintained.

There must be no question of an unseemly rush to dispose of those magnificent buildings. On the contrary, we should concentrate on ensuring an appropriate and continuing British use of the site—a use which, if at all possible, should maintain the historic link between Greenwich and the Royal Navy.

8.58 pm
Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)

The debate started with an unrecorded aside from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on the currently topical subject of beards. I am not sure whether that was the result of follicle jealousy, but it seemed singularly inappropriate in a debate on the Royal Navy. That apart, it has been a constructive, useful and wide-ranging debate. Especially welcome was the positive announcement on procurement policy by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, to which I shall return later. It was a little spoilt by his need to use a soundbite, but I partly understand that: it provided some covering fire for a sensible shift on procurement policy and will probably keep him out of trouble with the Whips Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) discussed the wider strategic perspectives. We do not spend enough time examining that aspect, and perhaps we should give it broader consideration. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber raised the problem of overstretch, which we all acknowledge to be a service-wide problem—especially with the increasing commitments in Bosnia, including the need for rest and recreation. I know that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is alert to those problems.

My hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) spoke powerfully about the future of the dockyards in their areas and the strong local and community involvement in the rapidly changing circumstances there. As usual, they were effective advocates for their communities.

Several hon. Members were concerned about the order for the type 23 frigates, especially the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). The shipbuilding industry, as Ministers know, anxiously awaits the type 23 decision. That anxiety has been increased by the continuing delays in making the announcement. As the Minister knows, the decision was expected before Christmas. It is a matter of regret that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was not able to make an announcement today. Given that this debate is a fairly movable feast, it is unfortunate that the decision was not brought forward or the debate postponed for a while until a Minister could make an announcement rather than saying that it would be made in a few weeks. We hope that that will not become a trade mark of Ministers' statements in such debates.

It is vital that an announcement should be made in the immediate future so that the yards and their suppliers and employees know what is going on. Hon. Members have referred to the dangers of protective notices and imminent redundancies as the work load starts to ease off and a gap appears in the work programme. I am sure that the Minister accepts that and I hope that we can have strong assurances of an early announcement.

Such an announcement is especially important because there is concern about how many type 23 vessels will be ordered. It is said that it will be up to three, but there is uncertainty as to whether it will be one, two or three.

Mr. Peter Griffiths

indicated assent.

Mr. Spellar

I see that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, who raised that in his speech, agrees. It concerns Hampshire and Glasgow Members and has considerable implications for British industry.

Concern has also been expressed at the delay in ordering the replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be more forthcoming in his reply. We cannot adopt a policy of wait and see.

My hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) raised the question of Trident with firm personal conviction. Mention of Trident has a Pavlovian effect on Ministers and there was considerable noise in support. Their problems on defence policy make them look for fabricated differences in the Opposition. For years, it has been clear that Government supporters took far more notice of Labour party conference decisions than did the Labour leadership. Now they do not even have that crumb of comfort, they grab gleefully at any Back Bencher's expression of difference with Front-Bench policy.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in 1983 and 1987 the Labour party went into general elections with leaders pledged to nuclear disarmament?

Mr. Spellar

That is exactly my point. Now, without even that crumb of comfort, the Government try to draw mock differences between Back-Bench and Front-Bench Labour Members. It is good knockabout stuff, but it is not a serious way to develop a national defence policy. I understand why the Minister grabs at that comfort: he is under huge attack from his Back Benches over the Government's policy on defence. The people who have taken Labour party policy on defence cuts most seriously are the Government. They implemented the cuts that the Labour leadership refused to accept.

On a practical matter, now that the French have ended their tests, have the Government considered two lessons? First, should they have been so tied to the position taken by the French in the first place? Secondly, as we move to a test ban, with modern super-computing providing the possibility of simulation, do we have the capacity in this country to undertake such work? If not, what provision are we making to achieve that?

I shall now turn to a most significant and welcome statement made by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement when he opened the debate. He reaffirmed the policy of the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who gave evidence to the joint Select Committee on Defence and Trade and Industry last May and said that the Ministry of Defence needs to continue to give due consideration to the possible consequences of procurement decisions for the defence industrial base and I am happy to affirm this once again. That issue is also outlined in the Labour party policy document, "Strategy for a Secure Future," which states: The defence industrial base, with its state-of-the-art manufacturing processes and its development of cutting-edge technologies, is a strategic part of Britain's overall industrial capability. Unfortunately there seems to have been a bit of a drift in Government policy. On 9 January the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said of the white vehicles contract that the criteria for the selection of the winning bid is based on best value for money, which includes technical and commercial competence."—[Official Report, 9 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 104.] On 11 January the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), said of the field ambulance order that contracts … will quite rightly be based primarily on value for money and operational considerations."—[Official Report, 11 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 295.] Those are important and necessary considerations, but they do not provide a total picture. As the Minister rightly stressed in his opening remarks, we must also include the maintenance of the defence industrial base and the maintenance of defence technologies, which are important both for the industrial and economic future of this country and for our ability to supply and maintain our armed forces with their equipment.

Welcome as the words are, we also need deeds. There was the recent case of the Army field ambulances. The final decision was welcome, but we must question why such a campaign was necessary to persuade the Government that they should be buying a world-class, world-beating British product.

Another case will come up shortly involving the helicopter flying school. Privatisation of the initial training for all three services in basic helicopter flying is a dogmatic exercise. It seems odd that, as we have just discussed, we can run a tri-service staff college but not a tri-service training school in basic helicopter flying. I should have thought that it would be an ideal opportunity, especially as the staff and facilities would come from different services.

The implications on the industrial side are also considerable. Indeed, they are worse. I have asked the Minister of State for Defence Procurement about the purchasing of helicopters for the operation. The spread of helicopter manufacture means that the helicopters will almost certainly come from abroad, given the bids that have come in. If it had been a Government contract, we would have been able to negotiate an offset arrangement; as the contract is private, the Ministry of Defence believes that that will not be possible, so more work will be lost to Britain.

When the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replies, he should tell bidders for the helicopter flying school that there should be some British content arising from the bids or there will not be a contract. We should start playing the game like other countries for once, and start by talking and acting tough, particularly with the Americans, who have had about $5 billion worth of orders from us in recent months. We should make it clear to them that we want to see offset or orders in return for our purchases.

With regard to Ministry of Defence properties, my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, backed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), made a strong case about housing—a subject on which he has campaigned effectively for a long time, as the Minister knows.

In the Army debate a couple of weeks ago, we mentioned the role of Mr. David Hart in relation to MOD properties. That seemed to make the Secretary of State extremely excitable at the time. Mr. Hart, who has been the subject of recent television programmes and press comment, appears to be the shadowy figure who weaves through many stories, to the extent that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has described him as the Rasputin of the situation.

The sale of MOD housing is an extraordinary exercise. I hope that we are now at the bottom of the housing market, but no one, unless they were under intense financial pressure from banks, would sell property at such a time. If a private company undertook such actions, it would send out warning signals that would lead to the calling of a meeting of creditors at a moment's notice. Having sold at the bottom of the market, we shall then rent the properties back at private market rents. As a result of Government policy, those rents have increased far faster than general inflation while house prices have fallen, so we are selling at the bottom to rent back, with rent reviews every five years.

I seek the Minister's response to suggestions that have been made that although the money from the sale will go directly to the Treasury, the rent will come from the defence budgets, so that in effect there will be another long-term defence cut. We are told that the rents charged to tenants will not be affected, but how long will it be before the hard-eyed men in the Treasury notice that there is a difference between the rents charged to service men and the market rent that the MOD pays to the landlord and start trying to claw back the difference?

What about people who buy properties? The discounted sales scheme for service men is being undermined. Since that scheme started, about 5,000 service men and their families have benefited. We were told by the MOD that many of those sales are heavily oversubscribed. Nevertheless, as a result of the current exercise, the Government are considering scrapping that welcome scheme. It is yet another kick in the teeth for our troops. Interestingly enough, it flies in the face of a commitment in the Conservatives' 1992 general election manifesto—it seems that the Minister spends more time reading Labour manifestos than reading his own—to help people in the forces to save towards a home of their own. That was a fairly direct commitment, yet it is likely to be reneged on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport spoke about the number of vacancies which might be available for social housing. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement leapt in with alacrity to ask whether my hon. Friend would support the sale as a move towards that. He leapt in a little too readily, which gave me a feeling that the Government are so keen to sell off property for dogmatic reasons that they have not sought short-term, sensible improvements that would have benefited the MOD and the people who needed the housing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), in his opening speech for the Labour party, referred to the Government's slogan about waste into weapons. He rightly turned that around to point out that in many cases weapons have been turned into waste. That has been especially the case with Navy stores. Navy spares worth millions of pounds have been left to rust and deteriorate in the open air as the storage depot closure programme gets under way. Storage bases are being run down and the material is being transferred to the Portsmouth depot. Unfortunately, the base is unable to cope with the spate of submarine and ship spares flooding in, so the material is being diverted to Colerne, near Bath, which is being used as an overspill site. People who have been there say that there are piles of expensive, sophisticated equipment stretching for a quarter of a mile around the depot, and that they are 6 ft high in places. We understand that the storage facilities are below even minimum standards. Hangars are infested with fleas and pigeon dung. Gear worth millions has probably been damaged as a result. Surveys and inspections, including shot-blasting, will be needed to restore much of it. That is not an effective, efficient operation, but a dash towards dogma.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) mentioned the Royal Naval college in Greenwich. Both described the splendid site and I shall certainly not attempt to improve on their eloquence. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich also drew attention to many of the questions that surround the setting up of the tri-service college and its concentration on the site at Camberley, rather than on the splendid site at Greenwich. He posed some serious questions which require answers, especially from a Government who would sell off the Admiralty arch and other bits of our history.

It is right to respect, preserve and commemorate our history. On a slightly more positive note, therefore, may I suggest in passing that the Ministry of Defence starts to give preliminary consideration to how the country will commemorate the bi-centenary of the battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson? That could bring together the whole history of the Navy and this country as an island nation and a naval power.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the Merchant Marine and the problems that it faces. It is all very well to go to the Baltic Exchange when we have an international agreement for a multinational force and a United Nations mandate, but it might be rather different if we were more isolated and had less agreement about an operation. In a situation such as the Falklands war, for instance, we might find ourselves far less able to mount an operation following the rundown of the Merchant Marine.

In summary, today's debate has been positive throughout, albeit somewhat marred by the Government's failure to announce a number of decisions. That failure should not detract from the positive side of the Minister's opening statement. Hon. Members who take an interest in defence will be pleased to build on those positive aspects, which will be welcomed by the defence industry and its employees. We look forward to positive implementation for the good of Britain's defence industry base and our armed forces, not least the Royal Navy.

9.16 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

This has been an interesting and important debate, as is generally the case when the House discusses the armed forces, but I regret that both sides of the House should be so poorly attended when we debate such an important matter.

Mr. Jamieson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Soames

No, I will not.

I intend to concentrate on the Royal Navy for the greater part of my speech and on the general issues that have been raised tonight. I hope that hon. Members will allow me the indulgence of leaving any specific points on procurement or the other responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to be dealt with separately by letter.

I am naturally grateful for the opportunity that our annual debate affords me to pay a genuine and whole-hearted tribute to the sensational professionalism, expertise, enthusiasm and dynamism of the Royal Navy. I know, as I hope most hon. Members know, that the senior service is held in the greatest esteem and affection at home. I also know, and it is made very clear to me on my travels overseas, that the Royal Navy's exceptional qualities and skills are truly admired, and in many cases envied, around the world.

We are very proud that the Royal Navy remains the envy of our allies and never fails to impress with its skill, tradition and spirit wherever it goes and whatever it does. I for one am immensely proud to work with what I consider to be the best navy in the world. I salute all the men and women who serve in it with such distinction and I want especially to mark out their families and loved ones who support them heroically and with understanding, true patience and constant fortitude. I congratulate the Navy on the wholly admirable way that it sets about looking after its service families.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement observed in his excellent opening speech, the past 12 months have, once again, been an extraordinarily busy time for the Royal Navy. Once more, the Queen's ships have been deployed to all corners of the world. As we meet here tonight, the white ensign is flying on Her Majesty's ships, which are carrying out important duties in pursuit of British interests from the West Indies to Hong Kong and from the north of Scotland to the Antarctic. Sailors and Royal Marines are performing arduous tasks, often in demanding conditions, all over the world.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement commented on the importance of the Royal Navy's exceptional contribution to our presence in the former Yugoslavia, and on all the work done thus far to bring matters to their present rather satisfactory—I hope—state of affairs. I am sure that the House will join me in sending our very best wishes to all our ships and their companies currently deployed in the Adriatic and surrounding waters—HMS Illustrious, HMS London, RFA Fort Grange and RFA Olwen, which form the carrier task group and which have done such sterling work. I want to refer also to HMS Brazen and HMS Beaver in the two NATO standing forces.

Nor should we forget the Royal Fleet Auxiliary resource in Split, or the fleet air arm and other units ashore, which are supporting the NATO implementation force in which the UK is playing a truly heroic role. I want to pay particular tribute to 845 naval air squadron, which completed three years of non-stop operations at Split on 11 November last year. B flight of that squadron has supplied four Sea Kings and crews in back-to-back operations. It has made a formidable contribution, and I send the squadron my warmest best wishes and profound congratulations.

The Royal Navy has made, and is still making, a distinguished contribution in the former Yugoslavia. All who have taken part in these crucial operations can look back on their efforts with satisfaction. I am conscious that the work of the Royal Navy in this theatre has not grabbed the headlines in quite the same way as our tremendous land contribution. Its importance, however, cannot be overstated. It has been a significant factor in helping to open the way to a lasting settlement. Indeed, our effort in the former Yugoslavia is a tri-service operation, which is an increasingly common feature of modern military operations that is reflected in our decision to create the new permanent joint headquarters, with all that that will mean for the increased efficiency and conduct of future operations.

I should like also to pay tribute to the Armilla patrol, which has recently entered its 16th year of continuous operations in the Gulf. Throughout, the Armilla patrol—currently maintained by HMS Brilliant and HMS Chatham, supported by RFA Brambleleaf—has provided great reassurance to our good friends and shipping in the area. I recently visited our good friends the Bahrainis and had the chance to visit HMS Chatham and to entertain the Bahrainis on board. She is a remarkable ship with a superb crew, and I am pleased to report that she has had a successful deployment. Her presence in some of the Gulf state ports was a tremendous attraction over Christmas and a tremendous promotion of British interests. I particularly thank Captain Paul Boissier and his splendid crew for all that they have done in the past few months.

I should like also to praise the work of the West Indies guard ship—currently HMS Brave, assisted by her accompanying RFA tanker Oakleaf. The WIGS has provided invaluable assistance to our dependent territories in the Caribbean and represents clear evidence of the Government's absolute determination to support our interests around the world.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement spoke of the humanitarian assistance given by the WIGS in response to various acts of God last year. I should like to commend her marvellous work in humanitarian assistance of another sort—countering the drugs menace. In recent months, HMS Brave has had two notable successes in this regard. As hon. Members may be aware, in December, she intercepted a suspect boat off Jamaica, which was found to be carrying a cargo of drugs with an estimated street value of £20 million. Again, last month, she intercepted a vessel acting suspiciously, causing its crew to jettison their cargo which, on recovery, turned out to be 40 bales of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than £90 million. It is believed to be the largest ever single drugs haul on the high seas. Such successes, and the deterrent that the presence of the WIGS provides, play an important part—with our allies in the region—in the international fight to keep drugs off the streets.

Elsewhere, the Royal Navy goes about its duties with the quiet—and sometimes not so quiet—professionalism that we have come to expect from all of our armed forces. In the south Atlantic, HMS Westminster is about to be relieved by HMS Northumberland as a deterrent naval presence, together with HMS Leeds Castle and RFA Gold Rover. At the same time, HMS Endurance is conducting her 1995–96.Antarctic season patrol.

And somewhere far out in the deep waters of the oceans one of our strategic missile submarines is providing the ultimate, independent guarantee of our security. Five of our nuclear hunter-killer submarines are also at sea on various tasks.

Closer to home, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement spoke of the new challenges the fishery protection squadron is meeting so admirably in the Irish box. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) also mentioned that squadron. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see it at work last year and I was most impressed not only by its equipment and the enthusiasm of its commanders and sailors, but by the excellent rapport that the Royal Navy still enjoys with our fishermen—despite what the tabloid press may say. In spite of some of the more extreme words uttered by some fishermen, the Royal Navy and the fishing community are very good friends and get on very well.

Several ships and royal fleet auxiliaries are today participating in a major NATO anti-submarine exercise off the south-west approaches in conjunction with allied forces and with RAF Nimrods. That is another fine example of the successful co-operation across service and national boundaries at which the Royal Navy excels. Around the coast of Britain, other ships are engaged in training or trials. They include ships undergoing operational sea training off Plymouth, which today will be engaged in the regular Thursday war.

Only a week ago, I had the opportunity to stand on the bridge of HMS Montrose and see at first hand one of those Thursday wars being fought. One cannot fail to be tremendously impressed by the exceptional skills and enthusiasm with which our young men and women respond to the very demanding challenges of that intense training, which exercises a wide range of capabilities in the most realistic and formidable setting. It is absolutely essential preparation for real operational deployments around the world and a mark of the Navy's continued commitment to maintaining extremely high standards of readiness and competence.

I do not want to forget the immense contribution that the Royal Marines make to the interests of this country. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was right to pay tribute to them earlier. At this moment, much of 3 Commando Brigade is engaged in its annual winter training deployment to Norway, which is important to the Royal Marines specialist cold weather warfare capability; and 40 Commando, Royal Marines has recently deployed to Northern Ireland for a six-month tour as the East Tyrone Battalion, following the deployment of 4/5 Commando to Fermanagh last year.

While the developing peace process and its very welcome ceasefire has reduced the immediate threat, the Royal Marines continue to assist the Army in providing support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the Province. The Royal Marines will form an important and core part of the joint rapid deployment force announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last year. That force, which will be held at an extremely high state of readiness, will be a major enhancement to our ability to project power quickly in support of British interests overseas—a role for which the Royal Marines are wholly and admirably suited.

I shall now try to deal with some of the more general points that have been raised in the debate. In an interesting speech, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made a number of points which centred around an incessant and rather meaningless mantra: the call for a defence review. I do not think that we need to bore the House any more tonight with that.

There is not a shadow of a doubt that all three services have been through a very difficult period. They have been through a period of considerable turbulence after the changes that have resulted from the end of the cold war, "Options for Change" and the defence cost studies. The changes were not about cutting defence, but about cutting our costs.

I must have misheard the hon. Member for Torfaen. I thought he said that he believed that the Royal Military school of music would be moving into temporary quarters. That is not correct. It will move to its new, permanent, quarters at Portsmouth by mid-April, which is on time. There is no question of the school going into temporary quarters. The move will save £3 million a year in infrastructure costs, which is not insignificant.

In relation to the Upholders, we await the decision of the Canadian Government. Meanwhile, we continue to discuss the affair with other friendly Governments who have shown an interest. The hon. Member for Torfaen also mentioned the Reserve Forces Bill, which will come to the House soon. I know that it will command all-party support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), who is a tremendous and doughty supporter of the Royal Navy, made an admirable speech in which he made much of the question of Wrens at sea.

I wholly endorse and support all that he said about them. There were quite plainly some initial difficulties when the policy was introduced, but it is working well—even if rather unevenly every now and then for reasons of which my hon. Friend will be more aware than most.

There are about 700 female officers and ratings in 25 Royal Navy ships. I noted my hon. Friend's point about the need for women to be promoted through the ranks. As time passes, as the rank structure evolves and as their shipboard skills evolve, I am sure that the ladies will roar through. I entirely share the sentiments that he expressed about the splendid contribution made by our people in the Royal Navy. I am grateful, and I know that they will be grateful, for what he said about them.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) must surely be the Navy's pin-up. Indeed, she must be all the services' pin-up because of the marvellous support that she gives all three services. I was trying to think of how we can best mark that. We should have the hon. Lady sculpted in wood and put on the bow of one of our more splendid and formidable battleships. She made an admirable speech in which she dealt with the matters that are always close to her heart.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement told me that he always greatly admired the way in which the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West dealt with her constituency interests. Her constituency has no doubt been through a very difficult time, and I know that my hon. Friend will deal with the points that she made when he speaks to her or writes to her.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West made a reference to morale in the Navy. That is always a matter of concern. High morale is very important, particularly in a service that is undoubtedly operating at a very high strike rate. Our people are extremely busy, they are away a great deal of the time and they are doing a formidable job. From my extensive contact and business with the Royal Navy, my impression is that morale is very high, but plainly it is not something that one would ever take for granted. One of the reasons why morale is very high in the Royal Navy is that it has a high standard of leadership and commitment—qualities which play an important part in maintaining high morale. However, I note what the hon. Lady said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) made what I can only describe as a splendid speech which has done much good for everyone who heard it, as it will for everyone who hears it on Radio 4 tomorrow morning. I hope that Radio 4 broadcasts the whole speech. It was marvellous. Anyone who listens to it tomorrow will know that if Members of Parliament were on performance pay, my hon. Friend would deserve a substantial pay rise just for making us feel much better about ourselves. I warmly endorse the views that he expressed. If I may say so, his comments come very well from a person in whose veins flows the wine of the Navy.

The Navy is at the core of my hon. Friend's life. His father was a distinguished and gallant sailor and my hon. Friend is a graduate of the Royal Naval college at Dartmouth. As he said, he joined the Navy twice before he was 20—and not many people have done that. He spoke with real feeling and understanding about the Navy and it was a pleasure to listen to him.

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the importance of the Warship Preservation Trust and the work of our former esteemed and revered colleague, Sir Philip Goodhart. Like my hon. Friend, I am constantly bombarded with the most admirable and succinct memos from Sir Philip on various matters concerning warship preservation. Although we can give only limited help, there is no doubt that it is an important subject. My father-in-law, Sir John Smith, was the architect of the saving of HMS Warrior—a remarkable preservation project—which is berthed beside HMS Victory, creating a fantastic centre of the history of the Royal Navy and our maritime history.

As my hon. Friends the Members for South Staffordshire and for Twickenham and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, British naval history is one of the most glorious and triumphant records of our past and it is incumbent on us to do all that we can to ensure that it is properly remembered.

Several hon. Members mentioned the royal yacht. We have received a number of proposals on the future of HMY Britannia following her decommissioning, and I can truthfully say that no decision has yet been taken. The Government are actively considering whether to replace HMY Britannia and an announcement will be made in due course. I take particular note of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin), who has had to leave the Chamber. My hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham and for South Staffordshire were among those who mentioned HMY Britannia. I am sorry not to be more forthcoming, but I am not yet in a position to do so. These are not weasel words; they are completely truthful.

Mr. Jamieson

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As the Minister is moving away from replying to the debate, may I ask you whether it is the habit and practice of the House that hon. Members who participate in debates are present at the start of the debate to hear the speeches of the Minister and the Opposition spokesman and attend the winding-up speeches? Are you aware that the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) was not here for the opening speeches, came in a few minutes before his own speech and left a few minutes afterwards? He has now done the Minister the gross discourtesy of not being here for his winding-up speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

It is not for the occupant of the Chair to order anyone to be here at any time. It is, as the hon. Gentleman observes, a courtesy to be present, but there may be good reasons why a particular Member is not present and I certainly would not wish to adjudicate on that.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was a typically spiteful and pointless remark by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). Those hon. Members who are not here now said in their speeches that they would be unable to stay. They all did me the courtesy of giving me a note to say they would not be here.

Greenwich was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham and for South Staffordshire and the hon. Member for Greenwich. Quite plainly, we all agree on the remarkable importance of the buildings. The hon. Member for Greenwich and I have discussed the matter on many occasions. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, who has played an enormously distinguished role in heritage, will know that no words of mine or anyone else can do justice to what is truly the most remarkable collection of buildings in Britain. There is a consensus on that and on what needs to be done.

I am aware of the many points that have been made from the Opposition Front Bench on these matters. I know that some parts of my letter have been queried. I have noted all those queries and they will be taken up in detail in a letter, copies of which will be sent to members of the Opposition Front-Bench team. I would welcome discussions on it with hon. Members, along with my officials.

I hope that all those who have spoken in the debate will take comfort from the formation of the Greenwich advisory group, chaired by Dame Jennifer Jenkins. It consists of Lord Farringdon, Dame Jennifer Jenkins, Lord Sainsbury and Jocelyn Stevens, who have been good enough to give of their time to advise the Government on the expressions of interest received and on the future use and management of the college. The group is considering the way forward. It is paying special attention to the extent to which the proposals are sympathetic to the status of the buildings and to their wide enjoyment by the public. It will take account, I am sure, of all the many points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the absolutely fundamental and unshakeable requirement that the use of the buildings should be seemly, fitting, suitable, dignified and entirely in keeping with their history and traditions.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Will the advisory group have, any direct or indirect input through the Minister to the Select Committee that is considering the Armed Forces Bill, especially clause 26? If there were such a means of passing the group's views to the Committee, that might be a helpful way forward.

Mr. Soames

The advisory group is advising the Government on all matters to do with the future lease of the Greenwich college. As the hon. Gentleman knows—he is a most distinguished and helpful member of the Committee—clause 26 will be considered when we are received, I am sure with due pomp and circumstance, by the hon. Member for Greenwich, who will be standing wearing a top hat waiting for the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on the steps of Greenwich pier. I am sure that all members of the Committee look forward to visiting Greenwich. I hope that the advisory group will have something helpful and useful to put before us.

Mr. Raynsford

I do not have a top hat.

Mr. Soames

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman is issued with one through central stores.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston)—the hon. Member for Devonport forgot to mention him—was good enough to tell me that he would not be able to stay in the Chamber until the end of the debate; he had to catch a train back to his constituency. It was a delight to welcome to our debate a former officer in the intelligence corps. He lent tone to what was otherwise a vulgar brawl on the Opposition Benches. He welcomed the formation of the naval support command and then took a typical Liberal Democrat position by criticising its implementation.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in his absence, and to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), who similarly is not in his place—he has represented with courage and consistency the interests of his constituents—that Ministers and the Navy are entirely confident that we have made the right decision on the naval support command. We look forward to prompt implementation. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber for his supportive words on the Navy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South spoke principally about Britannia, an issue with which I hope I have dealt. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) made a formidable speech. He is always well informed. His speech was connected with procurement matters, which I know my hon. Friend the Minister of State will have heard and that he will deal with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant)—

Mr. Jamieson

Where is he?

Mr. Soames

He is the one with the hair, or the other one with the hair. My hon. Friend has gone for an appointment with his hair consultant. He was good enough to tell me before he left that some minor technical adjustment was required to that technological wonder which sits astride his splendid brow.

My hon. Friend made an extremely effective and efficient speech, which was dignified by its intelligence and by its brevity.

The hon. Member for Devonport raised a number of questions, which I propose to gloss over.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) made, as usual, an extremely well-informed and powerful speech, and raised a number of important issues concerning his constituency. I shall ensure that they are reported to my hon. Friend the Minister and dealt with.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) did not tell me that he would not be here for the wind-up, and therefore I am somewhat constrained in what I may say about him and to him—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because he is such a dear man—he is also completely barking and represents, as we all know, the true voice of the Labour party on defence. He is living evidence of the fact that one simply cannot trust the Labour party on defence—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) can wave his hands around like an out-of-work conjuror, but the great silent majority in this country, as he will come to discover, know that one cannot trust the Labour party on defence.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent is the genuine and authentic voice of the Labour party on defence. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the hon. Gentleman is a worthy and true inheritor of his distinguished predecessor in the House. He made a speech that was utterly sincere, absolutely straightforward and very brave given the unbelievable volte face that his own party has made, almost en masse, although one knows perfectly well that it does not believe a bloody word of it. The fact of the matter is that if the Labour party—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces is on very good form tonight, but he has just gone a shade too far.

Mr. Soames

I am extremely sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I fancied myself enjoying a cocktail with you in a wardroom and went a touch too far. I apologise.

It remains the truth that, had Labour won any of the past four elections, we simply would not have had Trident. Labour would have had it scrapped. We would have been without our minimum independent nuclear deterrent which is the ultimate guarantee of our national security and makes a significant contribution to NATO's strategy of war prevention. The Labour party should hoist that fact aboard.

The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) also speaks with absolute sincerity and real passion about this matter and really minds about it. Nuclear weapons remain an important, integral and essential part of our defence, despite the end of the cold war.

I see the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on the Labour Benches. He is another hon. Gentleman with a beard and wears a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge. One does not see them any more. They have all gone, because there is no room for a rose and a CND badge.

If, in years to come, the Trident system were found not to be suitable for the task that it had to perform, and there still remained, in the judgment of Her Majesty's Government, a threat of nuclear war, I am sure that, in answer to the point that was raised, we would go ahead with the procurement of another system to ensure that we retained our own minimum independent nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Cohen

Would the Minister be prepared to order a replacement for Trident, at huge cost, which I outlined in my speech, if it meant that the conventional Navy would be run down as a result, which could happen?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman can conjure any form of fantasy out of what he speculates, but the whole Trident programme costs 2.5 per cent. of the defence budget over the procurement period. It is probably the greatest technological achievement of all time in terms of what it has done, and its cost and value for money are quite outstanding. If we needed to procure another system in years to come, I have no doubt that we would examine that closely, and if the threat were great enough, I am quite sure that any Conservative Government would ensure that our people were properly defended. All the beards and the CND badge wearers can shake their heads until they are blue—or red—in the face, but we know that Labour cannot be trusted on defence.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire made an altogether entirely welcome, but unexpected, speech. He came in with the honourable intention of supporting the hon. Member for Greenwich, who shares his concerns about Greenwich. As always, my hon. Friend gave us an eloquent and invaluable lesson in history, which I watched the few Labour Members who were present absorbing with interest, as none of them had ever heard it before.

I am satisfied that the fishery protection squadron is extremely well equipped and does a superb job; I am also satisfied that the Royal Naval Reserve has implemented a sensible, achievable, realistic and necessary recruiting drive to increase its current strength. My hon. Friend was right to say that it is an extremely important part of the Royal Navy. Part of its excellence lies in the fact that much of its training is now individually planned; moreover, much of it takes place at sea, involving service on operational naval ships. That gives trainees much more experience, and increases their skills in the use of equipment.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) on joining the armed forces scheme. I am sure that he will enjoy it, and that the Navy has enjoyed showing him some of its equipment. He made a thoughtful and interesting speech. It is difficult to argue with someone who has visited various ships and has heard opinions expressed on those ships, but in my view people in the Navy almost never whinge. They are almost unique in that regard. Of course, they express themselves forcefully when they find the need to do so.

It is true that our ships are tautly manned. There is a disparity in the numbers; numbers have been forced down, and the ships are very busy. But, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, much of the technology and equipment on them allow leaner manning. There is no great merit in employing more people than are needed. Nevertheless, I think that the Navy has now reached a point at which it cannot cut manning any further.

I was grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about homosexuality in the armed forces. As the House will know, Ministers commissioned a paper on the subject, which we shall submit to the Select Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill. We have not yet seen that paper, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it remains our policy to exclude homosexuals from the armed forces—not in connection with a moral judgment, but purely because of the special nature of service life, which, as the hon. Gentleman now knows very well, is completely different from civilian life.

As a Minister, I am constrained by what I may or may not say, and it is impossible for me to agree in public with what the hon. Gentleman said about the European Court. [Interruption.] I mean that in a very caring way.

The hon. Member for Leyton—whom we all love, and without whom any debate involving the nuclear deterrent would risk being called a dismal failure—made his usual splendid speech, full of marvellous charges and figures none of which remotely stands the test of time. He speaks with passion and clarity, and I accept that his argument is at the core of Labour party thinking. He represents a substantial majority of party members, and it was important for us to hear the true voice of the Labour party tonight rather than the sham circus on the Opposition Front Bench.

The hon. Member for Greenwich has just left. I hope that he heard the speech of the hon. Member for Devonport, or he will get a frightful rocket. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has also left."] So he has. I hope that the hon. Member for Devonport asked you if he could leave, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was going to say something about his speech, but, as he has gone, there is not much point in my doing so. I was saving it for the end as a bit of a surprise.

The hon. Member for Greenwich made an extremely well-informed speech, as he always does. He feels very strongly about the matter; he also feels that the Ministry of Defence has not handled it in a way that would serve the best interests of his constituency. There is still a good deal of discussion between us, and my colleagues and I will listen carefully to, and deal seriously with, the points that he has made.

As usual, the hon. Member for Warley, West made an extremely competent winding-up speech, with which we found ourselves in total disagreement, and he failed at any stage to deal with the essential interests of the Royal Navy, or, as far I could see, to talk about the role, deployment or anything else of the Navy.

With regard to French nuclear tests, the French have responsibilities as a nuclear power for ensuring the safety and reliability of their weapons. President Chirac has decided on the scientific advice available to him that the series of tests was utterly essential before France could sign a comprehensive test ban treaty. We support the French in their action. The important thing is to achieve international agreement on an end to all nuclear tests. France has made clear its commitment to a comprehensive test ban treaty, and we hope that a treaty will be signed in the first half of 1996.

All that I have said tonight provides little more than a snapshot of royal naval activities, but it gives a very clear insight into the range of tasks that face the Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel. I am only too well aware of the demands that the present level of commitments places on all those in the Royal Navy at all levels, and especially their families. However, I believe that the families understand the importance of the work—indeed, I know that they understand it.

Whether it is a life-saving search-and-rescue mission off the south coast in filthy weather, helping to restore essential services in hurricane-struck Anguilla, providing reassurance to remote dependencies in the south Atlantic, or the fisheries squadron looking after our fishermen, there are few other walks of life that can offer the challenges, opportunities, excitement and, above all, profound personal satisfaction of doing one's duty that the Royal Navy provides day in and day out.

Whenever I visit the Royal Navy, I am always truly struck by the wonderful spirit and—almost always—first-class morale of the people whom I meet, even at a time when the level of our peacetime commitments and obligations is higher than ever before. That is testimony to the training and character of those who serve in the Navy at all levels, and above all—let no one forget it—to the qualities of those who lead them. Without those people, all the high-tech equipment in the world would be completely useless.

The Government fully recognise the value of the naval personnel who serve us all so splendidly, and we maintain our whole-hearted commitment to balanced forces who are well equipped, well trained and well motivated. We need to appreciate that the changes in the strategic setting since the end of the cold war have, of course, caused turbulence and difficulties—we have never attempted to say otherwise—but that is now largely behind us, and I hope that we are now steaming into calmer water again.

I take enormous comfort from the amazing flexibility that has been shown by all the services during the period of change. We cannot and do not take that for granted, for it is that same flexibility and resourcefulness that equip the Royal Navy so splendidly for the myriad of tasks that it carries out.

I also warmly congratulate all those thousands of civilians who support the Royal Navy so loyally and tremendously, be they in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the naval bases, the depots, the Ministry of Defence or elsewhere. They are often overlooked and they should not be. They play a vital part in the conduct of naval business and I greatly praise their role.

There has been much ill-informed speculation and comment recently about the Royal Navy's ability today to fight the battles of the past. The Labour party can carp on that theme as much as it wants, but in doing so it reveals its complete misunderstanding of modern warfare. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that we do not need to fight past battles again by ensuring that the lessons of recent conflicts are enshrined in our training, doctrine and equipment.

We well appreciate the importance in this ever-changing uncertain world of being able to project power and exert influence over great distances. If anything, that is more important than it was during the height of the cold war, as the range and spread of the potential operations that we face are that much more diverse.

The United Kingdom continues to play a major part in world affairs, out of all proportion to its size. That we carry such influence is due in no small way to the real respect in which our armed forces are held. The Royal Navy has made a fantastic contribution to that—past and present.

Today, of 26 available destroyers or frigates—the workhorses of the fleet—21 are deployed on, preparing for or recovering from operational tasks, and the remainder are engaged in high-priority trials or training. That shows how very hard our senior service is working, and speaks volumes for the qualities of all those who serve in it. We place the greatest importance on all the Royal Navy's capabilities, and maintaining a strong and effective Navy, lean in the tail but with razor-sharp teeth.

I am sure that it greatly reassures the House to know that the Royal Navy is protecting our vital interests—a Navy that meets the challenges that it faces head on, and overcomes them with skill, hard work and good humour, for which it is renowned the world over. We are indeed truly fortunate to have such a fantastic and marvellous Navy.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.