HC Deb 07 May 1996 vol 277 cc6-8
7. Mr. Eric Clarke

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what was the strength of the Royal Navy in 1990; and what will be the strength of the Royal Navy under current plans by the end of the decade. [26925]

Mr. Soames

The total strength of the Royal Navy on 1 April 1990 was 63,000. The estimated strength for 1 April 1999 is some 44,000, including the Royal Marines and personnel undergoing training.

Mr. Clarke

Will the Minister explain how he reconciles the fact that the Conservative manifesto in 1992 stated that a cut of 27 per cent. in the armed forces would be devastating with the 30 per cent. cut in the Royal Navy?

Mr. Soames

I know that the hon. Gentleman, living in the wonderful time warp of Midlothian, will not have noticed that there has been an extraordinary change in the strategic setting that governs the deployment and support structures of our armed forces. Manpower strength is not the prime determinant of the Navy's military capability. The Navy today is probably better equipped and better manned than it has ever been. It is performing a fantastic job and I pay tribute to its extraordinary professionalism and to the way that the Navy has coped with the changes. Today, there are more than 46 British ships at sea, 25 on Exercise Purple Star, and many others promoting Britain's interests in a professional manner, which is very advantageous to this country.

Mr. David Martin

Can my hon. Friend confirm that—as I find in Portsmouth—while the Navy is smaller, morale is high and the professionalism with which it goes about its tasks is second to none? Does my hon. Friend know of any proposals from Labour or the Liberal Democrats that would increase the efficiency of the Royal Navy or increase the numbers of people who serve in it?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I know that the Royal Navy is grateful for his support in Portsmouth. He is right to point out that morale in the Royal Navy is high. The personnel of the Royal Navy are working hard and are away from home rather more than we would like, but they do a remarkable job. I know of no such proposals from the other parties and the only proposals that we have heard are those that are likely to harm gravely the Royal Navy and the defence interests of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the Minister know anything about Midlothian? Can he name one town in the county?

Mr. Soames

What I know about Midlothian, one could write on the back of a very large stamp. I know that it is a marvellous and wonderful place in Scotland and that it is lucky enough to have the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) as one of its Members of Parliament. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made Midlothian famous by the Midlothian question, to which we are all waiting to hear the answer.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my hon. Friend agree, further to his remarks, that it is not manpower alone that is needed for the Navy of the future, but high technology? Does he further agree that our ships are now equipped with the best technology that this country can provide and that we need to have a sense of priorities so that we are fit and capable of fighting into the next century?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is right. The Royal Navy is probably technologically better equipped now than it has ever been. As my hon. Friend knows, the acquisition of Tomahawk will greatly expand its opportunities, and the type 23 frigate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) has just mentioned, is not only a more sophisticated ship in every way, both technologically and in terms of capability, but requires 30 per cent. fewer crew than its predecessor while being a far more powerful ship. Those are the ways in which we are going and they are inevitably the ways in which technology drives the armed forces. Britain is at the forefront of taking advantage of all those exciting new opportunities.

Mr. Murphy

How can we take the Minister seriously when he talks about either the geography of Midlothian or about defending and preserving our Navy, when it is his Government who have presided over the rundown of the fleet and issued thousands of redundancy notices to Navy personnel? Can he not see that not only the Royal Navy but all three armed services have nothing for which to thank the Government and are as anxious as everyone else in Britain to get rid of them?

Mr. Soames

My geography may be a bit rusty, but I do not think that West Lothian is that far from Midlothian. However, I apologise to the hon. Member for Linlithgow, and to Mr. Gladstone.

Again, the hon. Gentleman, like so many of his hon. Friends, is living in a complete time warp. [Interruption.] New Labour is no more new Labour than jump the moon; it is just old Labour in a new suit of clothes. The Royal Navy, unlike the Labour party, has genuinely moved on. It has moved on to embrace new technologies, new equipment and new ways of producing the support that it needs. It has done that with great skill and it has managed the transition extremely effectively. It deserves great credit. The kind of arrant nonsense talked by the Opposition again more than confirms the fact that all Conservative Members know in our hearts that, primarily because the Labour party cannot be trusted with defence, we shall win the next election.