HC Deb 12 November 1998 vol 319 cc504-72

[Relevant documents: The Eighth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1997–98, on the Strategic Defence Review (HC 138-I).]

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

4.54 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Doug Henderson)

It is a great privilege to open this debate on the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, the first on the subject since February 1996. I begin by paying tribute to the impressive qualities of those who serve in the those forces. I have seen those qualities at naval establishments across the United Kingdom, from the Clyde submarine base in the north to Plymouth and Poole in the south, and on warships—I was on board HMS Westminster when she was undergoing operational sea training. I have seen the commitment to duty, to the proud traditions of the service and to the central role that our naval forces play in safeguarding the freedoms that we all enjoy.

As I have visited ships and bases around the country, I have been struck by the professionalism, dedication, enthusiasm and team spirit of everyone whom I have met. Those qualities are at the core of the success of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. They are embodied in an ethos on which the foundations of our naval service depend.

Royal Navy ships continue to be widely deployed around the world in support of our defence missions and tasks. On an average day, up to 60 per cent. of ships are on operations away from their base port. Their contribution is immense, ranging from the maintenance of the continuous at-sea deterrent patrol and our contribution to the NATO standing naval forces to fishery protection.

In the past year, the Navy and the Marines have been ready to assist in the evacuation of British citizens from countries where their lives may have been at risk—Sierra Leone, Albania, Indonesia and the Congo. Naval forces have assisted in counter-drugs operations, both in the United Kingdom and overseas. The fact that that commitment is now included as a military task is a reflection of the high priority that the Government attach to the fight against illegal drugs trafficking.

The Royal Navy is also involved in ensuring the security of our overseas territories. The programming of ships to the Atlantic patrol task will result in greater flexibility but will not be detrimental to a visible presence, when it is required, in the south Atlantic, in the Caribbean or off west Africa. Operations in the Caribbean are primarily focused on counter-drugs operations but they also enable the Navy to respond to natural disasters during the hurricane season. The House will be aware that, in the past month, HMS Sheffield has provided humanitarian relief in the West Indies following Hurricanes George and Mitch, which had such devastating effects in central American, especially in Honduras.

Our operational structures change as the situation changes. All our armed forces have recognised the importance of joint action, and I commend the Royal Navy for its forward-thinking and open-minded approach in the strategic defence review. It considered first and foremost how it could evolve to enhance its contribution to overall defence. It thought joint, not single service. The new concept recognises the unpredictable nature of today's world and the importance of being able to respond quickly to a crisis with joint and rapidly deployable forces; it recognises the reach, self-sufficiency and independence from host nation support that characterise maritime forces.

The Navy has already established Joint Force 2000— which the House discussed in our debate two or three weeks ago—with colleagues in the Royal Air Force, and it will come into operation next year. Joint Force 2000 will build on the successful experience of joint Harrier operations at sea to enhance the power projection capability of the Invincible class carriers. The force will be part of RAF Strike Command, with a Royal Navy rear admiral at its head but an RAF air commodore in day-to-day charge.

In the longer term, we will build on the Joint Force 2000 experience when the future carrier-borne aircraft comes into service on the new carriers in 2012, in line with current planning. There are other examples of jointery: 3 Commando Brigade is already an inherently joint force with Army units permanently under Royal Marines command. Jointery will also be utilised beyond the front line in logistics and materiel support.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Minister told us that he was proud of the Navy's examination of how it could increase its contribution to defence through the strategic defence review. How can cutting three frigates and two nuclear attack submarines—SSNs—help to achieve that?

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that, because he sat through the strategic defence review debate, in which we considered our future defence needs. It was recognised that, as a choice had to be made, our priority was to be able to deploy frigates in a concentrated way, rather than having the ocean coverage that is provided by the existing 35 frigates.

The same logic applies to SSNs. The hon. Gentleman will know that the emphasis of the design of the armed forces for the future, including the Navy, is to meet the operational needs that we think that the country will have. We believe that we will need a rapidly deployable force, and we have acted accordingly.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Will the Minister confirm that, right at the beginning of the strategic defence review, the Government said that there would be no more money for defence, so it did not matter what were the results of the SDR, or what were our foreign policy requirements? As there was no more money, the armed forces had to trim what they wanted to do.

Mr. Henderson

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the subject of cuts in defence. I cannot recall how many such cuts were made by the previous Government, but I think that the cumulative effect was about a 30 per cent. cut over their last 10 years in office. I will not take any lessons from Conservative Members on cuts in defence. The SDR considered the allocation that is possible and that will meet our defence requirements, and we will choose priorities within that framework.

The Royal Navy provides our independent strategic nuclear deterrent, in the shape of the Trident force, which provides the fundamental guarantee of our security. Our reliance on nuclear weapons has, of course, radically reduced since the end of the cold war, but the strategic defence review confirmed that nuclear deterrence still has a unique and essential contribution to make to our security and that of our allies.

The deterrent prevents nuclear coercion against us-we should never forget that there are a great many nuclear weapons in the world-and I believe that it will contribute to preserving peace and stability in Europe as we work towards global verifiable nuclear disarmament. With the withdrawal of our last remaining free-fall nuclear bombs, the Royal Navy now operates our only nuclear weapon system.

In the new strategic setting, we have been able to reduce the readiness of our trident force while maintaining continuous at-sea deterrent patrols. As a measure of our commitment to further nuclear de-escalation, the notice period regulating the operation of our nuclear weapons has been increased.

I know that the House will want to put on record our appreciation of the work of our Trident submariners. Any of us who have visited submarines will recognise the difficult conditions in which submariners work to serve their country.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

As my hon. Friend knows, Trident submarines are a familiar sight in my constituency. I want to know about the code of conduct governing the passage of those submarines through our traditional fishing grounds. On 21 August, an incident took place involving a nuclear submarine and affecting seven fishing vessels from Tarbert, Loch Fyne. A meeting was held on 22 October to discuss the incident. I pleaded with the Tory Government for years and years to have a code of conduct. Can we now have a review of that code and a revision of its rules, in the interests of our fishermen?

Mr. Henderson

I can reassure my hon. Friend that I take very seriously the code governing the way in which our submarines enter the Clyde-and elsewhere-on the way to the bases. I visited Faslane a few weeks ago and discussed the matter with naval personnel. I am not aware of the specific incident to which my hon. Friend refers. I shall look into it and write to him, but I can reassure him now about the principle: we want the highest safety standards to ensure that submarines do not collide with fishing boats or their kit.

I believe that we can improve submariners' conditions of service. The Royal Navy is investigating how such improvements, including the possibility of more port visits, can be made. I hope that the House will welcome the launch in September of the fourth Trident submarine. It has ensured our ability to guarantee a capability to maintain continuous patrols over the lifetime of the Trident force.

Defence diplomacy is increasingly important for all our armed services. HMS Marlborough's visit to Syria and HMS Somerset's visit to St. Petersburg are important examples of that work.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will deal with the major part of procurement issues at the end of the debate, but I should like to refer to some of our equipment needs. In the strategic defence review, we stated our belief in a world-class Navy equipped to do the job. We have to continue to modernise and improve our equipment. I can assure the House that we are doing that.

The type 23 frigate is one of the most modem surface combatants in the world. With the last three in the class currently in build, the type 23 will form the backbone of the Navy's surface fleet well into the next century.

HMS Ocean, our new helicopter assault ship, brings a new dimension to amphibious operations: an area in which the Royal Navy has unparalleled experience and expertise. We all witnessed the contribution that HMS Ocean made to the humanitarian effort in central America.

The Navy's air capability has benefited immensely from the upgrade of the Sea Harrier aircraft, and from the ability to fly Royal Air Force Harriers from the Invincible class carriers. The highly capable Merlin helicopter—representing the state of the art in naval rotary-wing aviation—enters service next month. Beneath the waves, our Swiftsure and Trafalgar class submarines remain among the quietest, most capable nuclear-powered submarines in operation today.

The strategic defence review confirmed current plans for future equipment as follows—three new astute class submarines to replace the swiftsure class; two new assault ships to replace HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid; and two auxiliary oilers to replace the current Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service ships, Olwen and Olna. We have plans to replace the type 42 destroyer; to update all our submarines to make them capable of firing Tomahawk cruise missiles; and for a further four roll on/roll off ships that can provide the strategic lift we need to enable us quickly to deploy leading elements of the joint rapid reaction force.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I served in the original HMS Fearless, when it operated as a landing platform dock, for a short while when she was first commissioned. I notice that the Government will rightly replace the two LPDs with two further ships. Why, therefore, have the Government planned for only one new helicopter carrier—HMS Ocean—when that ship has already been used during its trials period? It is imperative that we have at least two helicopter assault carriers, and I ask the Minister to reconsider that point.

Mr. Henderson

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I hope that he understands that we have to have priorities and make choices. We cannot have everything in this world. HMS Ocean is an excellent vessel, which is in trials at the moment, and will serve us all well. We have plans for two further carriers that will provide many of the facilities that Ocean provides, and many others. Those carriers, which were the subject of much discussion during the debate on the strategic defence review, are an essential part of our modern provision. They will carry a more powerful force of future carrier-borne aircraft—the successor to the Harrier.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Minister referred to the Tomahawk and I believe that we have a Tomahawk capability in the Gulf off Iraq. Can the Minister confirm that the information that is crucial to the targeting of the Tomahawk comes from UNSCOM?

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend will understand that I am not prepared to cover such issues in today's debate. I am happy to discuss the principles of targeting, but I am not prepared to go into detail and I know that the House does not expect me to do so.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)


Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)


Mr. Henderson

I wish to make some progress.

I shall now deal with the issue of people in the Navy. The House has recognised previously that people are our most important asset in the armed forces and that is certainly true of the Navy. We put people first. We need to recruit more people into the Navy. We are currently 2,000 people short and we must close that gap. We shall do so by offering a first-choice career to those who have the potential to form part of our naval force.

The main shortfall categories are now among operator mechanics, Royal Marines and Sea Harrier pilots. The shortfall is being tackled on several fronts, but it will take some time to turn round. Our target is to achieve full staffing in the naval service by 2002.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Some 27 Harrier pilots requested to leave the service early in the past 12 months. Has the Minister discovered the reasons behind those requests from people who have been trained to a high level of proficiency? What can he do to get people, especially pilots, to stay in the Navy once they are fully trained?

Mr. Henderson

That is an important question and it has no easy answers. At the moment, we face an increase in demand for civil aviation pilots, and many—if not all—of the Navy's pilots have skills that make them an attractive proposition to any airline that is short of pilots. If the airlines are prepared to put a lot of goodies on the table—as I used to say when I was involved in industrial relations—it is hard for pilots to turn them down and hard for us to respond. We have recognised the problem; special arrangements have applied to pilots in the past, and that will probably continue. I assure the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) that the Government are doing what they can.

There is no single way to improve recruitment. A number of different approaches are necessary, ranging from national campaigns to targeted action on the ground, but we must be straight in what we say to potential recruits. Reality must match their perception. I hope that the wearing of uniforms in public will help to raise public confidence in our Navy.

The retention of trained personnel is also important. I have already mentioned Harrier pilots, but the Navy provides several other occupations that have alternatives in the civilian sector.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

What steps is the Minister taking to eliminate the constant drip-drip of scandal involving the deployment of Wrens at sea? Will he accept that such scandals undermine the ability of the Royal Navy to recruit the calibre of staff to which he refers?

Mr. Henderson

I do not whole-heartedly accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Much of the media can make scandal where there is none, and they can get a small amount of scandal out of all proportion. I do not believe that there is more scandal in the relationships in any of our armed forces than among the population generally and I am taking steps to establish whether that is so.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)


Mr. Henderson

I shall give way for the last time, because I wish to make progress more quickly.

Dr. Tonge

If recruitment is a problem for the Royal Navy, would it be helpful to lift the ban on homosexuals? Indeed, should not that ban be lifted in all the armed forces?

Mr. Henderson

As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have given a commitment that the policy on homosexuals serving in our armed forces will be discussed by the House in this Parliament. When we come to that debate, it is important that I ensure that the House is aware of all operational requirements so that it can take them into account when making its decision.

Earlier this week, we held a very successful equal opportunities conference. General Colin Powell was the keynote speaker and we heard also from Sir Herman Ouseley and Kamlesh Bahl. The conference took learning from experience as its theme, and it enabled the Government, and the armed forces, to underline, once again, the seriousness with which we view equal opportunities. The guarantee of an equal opportunities environment in the Navy is an important part of making sure that the reality meets the objective. People expect a working environment that promotes equality and fairness, and prejudice of any kind has no place in the Royal Navy. I know that the naval staff of all ranks are now taking part in our equal opportunity education at Shrivenham and I hope that that will make a telling contribution to improving the working environment.

We need more recruits from all of our communities, including more men and women from black and Asian communities. The most recent recruitment figures show a significant improvement. The number of black and Asian people who now want to join the Navy has increased from 1 to 2 per cent., although that is still unacceptably low. It is a major motivation of mine to give further momentum to that improvement. Our efforts were recognised last week when the naval service won a number of awards at the 1998 British diversity awards ceremony. The Second Sea Lord received a gold award and the work of other naval personnel in the recruitment of minorities was also recognised. I was especially pleased that the tri-service efforts to raise diversity awareness received recognition in the form of a gold award.

Women comprise 7.4 per cent. of the Navy, and they fill a wide range of posts. We announced in the SDR that we wanted to continue to maximise opportunities for women in all three services. We have opened up to women a further 1,300 specialist posts attached to the Royal Marines, which are filled by Royal Navy and Army personnel. We shall consider the position of women's service in submarines and as mine clearance divers.

The inquiry rate from members of the black and Asian community to join the service continues to increase. The recruiting target for this year was set at 2 per cent. for those candidates, and we have hit it. We are also on track to hit that target for ethnic candidates for both officers and ratings.

Mr. Gill

Does not the process of setting targets for the recruitment of minorities sound very much like positive discrimination?

Mr. Henderson

It is not positive discrimination, but a recognition that we cannot fill all Navy posts unless we make them more attractive to a broader cross-section of our population. We shall not do that unless we go out to the whole community to say, "This is what it is like in the Navy. Come and join us." Our recruitment team is going out to communities from which we have historically been unable to attract people to the Navy. We are telling people that they can have a great life, and a first-choice career in the Navy. They can receive a good education, and we will take a zero-tolerance view of discrimination. We are beginning to have a an impact in those communities, bit by bit.

Mr. Gill

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Henderson

No more.

I am pleased that our participation in the Notting Hill carnival was important in building links with ethnic communities. The service deals harshly with discrimination, as should any responsible employer, and it continues to review policies and practices so that they remain relevant and consistent with good employment practice. As in the other two services, a freephone harassment helpline has been introduced, and service personnel and their families may use it.

Following the strategic defence review, we have taken steps to improve education facilities for service personnel. New training and education initiatives will enable personnel to gain key skills and transferable qualifications for their return to civilian life. We also plan to introduce a scheme that will allow personnel to claim learning credits, which will offer financial support to service people for a learning purpose, both while they are serving and for some time afterwards.

As part of our welfare measures, we have established a families task force, which will address particular problems faced by service families in choosing housing and children's education. That is in line with our policy of caring for our people. Additionally, I am delighted to announce that we plan to give recognition and support to an association for Royal Navy and Royal Marines families. A number of naval families have expressed a wish to have an association to help represent their views and concerns, and the Navy is now working with them to help develop and agree their charter. They will be provided with headquarters accommodation, communication facilities and help with funding. The new association will be based in Plymouth.

The association should help dialogue between the naval service and naval families. It will be an adjunct to existing information and advice centres for wives and the naval personal and family service, which already provide community and personal support to families.

I shall say a word about the importance of our naval reserves and their contribution to operations. That contribution was fully recognised by the strategic defence review, and the capability of both the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Marines Reserve will be significantly enhanced as a direct result of recommendations arising from the review. The staffing ceiling of the Royal Naval Reserve has been increased from 3,500 to 3,850—an increase of 10 per cent.—to enable reservists to be more widely available across the fleet.

As a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, we are now able to utilise reservists in a much more flexible way. Full-time reserve service, for example, is a relatively new form of reserve service which enables reservists to be employed to fulfil the same range of duties as a regular service person. That has proved to be an extremely valuable and well-utilised form of service with some 150 members of the Royal Naval Reserve employed in that way. They work alongside their regular service colleagues, both afloat and ashore, for periods of up to two years at a time.

Royal Naval Reserve personnel from the seaman, air, medical, interrogator and intelligence branches have supported, and continue to support, operations in Bosnia during the past year. The Royal Marine Reserve will continue to reinforce the regular Royal Marines command when required and provide a valuable nationwide infrastructure for regeneration and reconstitution in times of national emergency. As with the Royal Navy Reserve, a number of Royal Marine reservists are currently serving full time with their parent service or with the Royal Navy.

The strategic defence review has confirmed the place of our maritime and amphibious forces at the centre of the defence enterprise. We have backed that up with the equipment and the policies the Navy needs to do the job. The Navy has emerged from the review with a much more clearly defined concept of operations, a plan for a powerful and balanced front line, increased funding for some aspects of support and a strategy for dealing with the problems of overstretch. The result will be a naval service well prepared to face the challenges of the 21st century. The Navy and Marines deserve the House's support. I hope that it will get that support today.

5.25 pm
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I welcome this debate, the third of the single service debates that have become part of the annual tradition of Parliament. May I chide the Minister ever so gently for the fact that four of the five days for defence debates have occurred during the past three and a half weeks?

Mr. Doug Henderson

indicated assent.

Mr. Maples

For his team's sake as well as my own I hope that we may be able in future to spread the debates a little more evenly over the year.

Mr. Henderson

I hope to meet the hon. Gentleman's wishes in that regard.

Mr. Maples

We have found something on which we can agree. I hope that not all the debates will fall on a Thursday—or at least on days such as today on which the North Atlantic Assembly is meeting, which may affect people's ability to attend.

I welcome discussions with the Government and with other parties on whether a proper format for the five days of defence debates might not continue to be two days for debate on the estimates, with the other three days perhaps split slightly differently so that each one does not necessarily focus on a single service. We are open to suggestion on that.

Events in Iraq are certainly hotting up. The Navy would be involved in action there. I do not intend to deal with Iraq in my speech, because the Minister clearly cannot deal with them tonight. However, if and when our forces go into action in the Gulf, I hope that there will be an immediate statement by the Secretary of State in the House so that we can cross-question him on what is happening, and on what policy is being pursued.

I have already apologised to Madam Speaker, and now do so to the House, for the fact that I have a long-standing speaking engagement—arranged before the debate was arranged—and I shall not be able to stay for the whole debate or to return for the winding-up speeches. I shall eagerly collect Hansard tomorrow to read the speeches that I have not heard.

Since the end of the cold war, we have seen a fundamental change in defence policy. Nowhere has that been more true than in our naval strategy. In some ways, we are returning to a more traditional defence policy of expeditionary forces and the use of naval power to support land operations. The 20th century has been somewhat continentalist, dominated by continental powers such as Germany, Russia and China, and that has dictated British naval planning and deployment. We were previously the great practitioner of maritime strategy based on naval predominance and expeditionary operations. From world war one, that changed. Continental issues dominated, and our naval strategy changed accordingly.

Since the end of the second world war, our naval deployment has been almost entirely configured for anti-submarine warfare in the north Atlantic, designed for the essential task of keeping open supply and communication lanes, and helping to maintain access to Europe for the United States fleet. The end of the cold war has, at least for the time being—though I doubt for all time—ended that continentalist situation. We no longer have to configure and deploy our forces solely to meet the Warsaw Pact threat. The new strategic environment demands the ability to respond flexibly and quickly outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation area. We must be able to respond to threats and challenges not only in Europe, but in the middle east, the Gulf and north Africa. That will involve joint force operations in conjunction with allies. Such a concept is far from new, but it was largely irrelevant during the cold war.

Forces will have to be able to provide a wide range of options: the ability to deploy, respond and reconfigure rapidly and flexibly, offering a range of military options to policy planners. Navies cannot respond as quickly as air forces or provide the territorial presence of an army, but those are not always the most important qualities required. Navies can reach most of the world. They can engage and disengage rapidly. They are largely self-sufficient. They can operate aircraft and land forces. They can operate without host nation approval or support. They can switch quickly from a diplomatic to an aggressive role. Those concepts have increasingly come to influence defence policy over the past six years or so and they are carried forward in the strategic defence review.

We can already deploy a brigade-sized force. RAF GR7s can operate from carriers. HMS Ocean will add a whole new dimension. We can deploy a joint force headquarters at sea. The new landing platform docks on order will be able to land forces quicker and with greater air support.

The return to a more maritime strategy is the appropriate response to this situation. It involves a return to a more traditional British defence stance, but this time with far greater emphasis on joint operations. We in the Opposition support those aspects of the strategic defence review which carry that forward.

I shall take a moment to express the enormous admiration in which our Navy are held. They are constantly involved in deployments—in the south Atlantic, the Gulf and all over the world. They consistently acquit themselves with success and distinction. We are lucky to have them. Our duty as politicians is to ensure that they have the men, equipment and training to do what we ask of them.

That leads me to the issue of recruitment and retention. I understand that surface ships are sailing with crews about 5 per cent. short of their full complement on a fairly regular basis. Recruitment and retention are therefore vital. Undermanning leads to more frequent tours of duty, longer periods away from home and excessive workloads and that, in itself, causes people to leave early and makes recruitment difficult. It is a vicious circle which must be broken. In the past three years, far more people have left the Navy than have joined it. That must change. I know that the Government realise the seriousness of the matter and attach importance to solving the problem. We shall support them in their efforts, but we shall watch closely to see whether they achieve their aims.

Where better to begin my consideration of procurement issues than with the new carriers? These were and are the centrepiece of the strategic defence review. They were the most heavily leaked or trailed part of it. That document was especially heavily leaked and trailed by the Secretary of State's special adviser, who was comprehensively briefing the press on every aspect long before the House was told and the carriers were in the shop window. The carriers were what justified the cuts in money, men and equipment. In the case of the Navy, it was those new carriers that were to make up for the cuts in the number of submarines and surface ships. The Navy was paying today for promises of a great future in 15 years' time.

I expressed my doubt at the time that this Government would ever build the carriers and I still have doubts. The Treasury, whose bootprints are all over the review, will be back for more. As the Chancellor's public spending plans come under increasing pressure as the economy slows, so he will be back for more cuts in the defence budget.

Even I could not have expected that the Government were actively investigating an alternative option. On 7 September, just a few weeks after publication of the SDR, the Government advertised in the "Ministry of Defence Contracts Bulletin" for a study designed to extend the life of the existing carriers. It stated of the existing carriers: conversion would be expected to extend the operational life of the Vessels for a period of 10 years from around 2012 to 2022. That is wholly incompatible with launching two new carriers in 2012. The Government's bad faith has been there for all to see.

To be fair to the Secretary of State, I expect that that was imposed on him by the Treasury against his wishes. However, his explanations in the SDR debate were so pathetic that he could not have thought up the idea for himself. He did a manful job, pretending that standard practice was being followed and attempting to rubbish what was abundantly obvious to all—that the Government had been caught out in an act of breathtaking duplicity. How can it be standard practice to announce a firm procurement decision and then subsequently to announce a study for an alternative which would completely destroy the case for the original decision? It was a fatuous explanation and the Secretary of State knew it. It must have done immense damage to morale in the Royal Navy and dealt a terminal blow to the Secretary of State's credibility.

The Secretary of State must have come to the same conclusion because, in his first great climbdown of the year, he has abandoned part of those plans. In a further announcement in the same "Ministry of Defence Contracts Bulletin" of 4 November he sneaked out his climbdown in small print: The Ministry of Defence now believes it can meet the study need without involving the shipbuilding/ship repair industry and the previous advertisement is thus withdrawn. What a humiliation. What incompetence. What a climbdown. I can promise the Secretary of State that any further duplicity will be met by the same relentless exposure and questioning from the Opposition. It is unlikely that the climbdown would have taken place if we had not pursued the issue to the embarrassment of Ministers. I look forward to many more climbdowns, starting I hope on Monday with a change of heart about the Secretary of State's damaging plans for the Territorial Army.

Unfortunately, this climbdown cannot be seen to be the end of the matter because it appears that the studies are now to go ahead internally. How can these studies possibly be compatible with firm plans to build the carriers? The Secretary of State cannot bluster his way out of this one. If those studies show that the lives of our existing carriers can be extended within acceptable operational and financial parameters, what will happen? Logic dictates—from experience I know that the Treasury is logical—that the new carriers can be postponed for at least 10 years. That must be the case. I cannot believe that that option was not studied as part of the SDR and rejected. It is the sort of option that must be considered early on, not after an alternative major procurement decision has been taken. I do not think that Ministers even now are being straight with the House.

I have two simple questions which I hope that the Under-Secretary can answer in his reply. If they are not answered today, we shall continue to pursue them. First, is an internal study under way within the Ministry of Defence into the feasibility of converting the existing carriers to operate the joint strike fighter and extend their lives for 10 years until 2022? Secondly, if such a study concludes that this can be done, what will the Secretary of State do? If he intends to go ahead with the new carriers whatever the study says, why bother with the study? Is not the plain fact of the matter that if the study concludes that this option is feasible, he will have to take it and abandon the new carriers for at least 10 years? The uncertainty is a serious matter. It is breeding morale problems in the Navy and it is entirely the fault of the Secretary of State, who refuses to stand up to a ridiculous request from the Treasury that appears to have been thrown in after the SDR was published.

Mr. Doug Henderson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money, given operational needs—something that the study must also consider—were also taken by the previous Conservative Government? He talks about the Treasury being logical. He will know from his days at the Treasury that there was a 10 per cent. cut in defence expenditure during his years there.

Mr. Maples

Defence expenditure was cut at a time when the Labour Opposition were calling for far bigger cuts to the European average. The answer to the Minister's first question is no. I have asked Conservative Secretaries of State for Defence; indeed, we heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) intervene in the SDR debate to say that we did not do that. It is complete nonsense. If the Government have taken a decision to commission two new carriers what is the point of having a study to determine whether the old ones can be refitted to take the joint strike fighter? Surely one would answer that question before taking the decision to commit to two new carriers.

The question remains unanswered. Until the Government clear the matter up and say that they are not studying that as an option, people like me and many more people outside the House will have great difficulty in believing that the Government are committed to the two new carriers. They are the absolute centrepiece of the SDR and the Navy's part in it.

Let us assume that the Government will build the two new carriers. We currently have three carriers, but with major and minor refits we can guarantee only one on active service at any one time. Ark Royal is about to have a major refit and lies totally unfit for service at Portsmouth. Illustrious is also there in a dry dock undergoing extensive work that will not be completed until April. Only Invincible is available for service. If we have only two carriers, what will happen? There are bound to be periods when neither will be available. There will be major mid-life refits every 10 years or so, which have traditionally taken two or three years. During a major refit of one carrier, if any work needs to be done to the other, both will be out of service. I know that it is expected that the design of the new carriers will make refits and maintenance work less frequently necessary, but can we know that one of the new carriers will always be available? It is a major problem, and I hope that the Minister can deal with it in his reply.

Project Horizon, the common new generation frigate, is due in service in 2004 to replace the type 42 destroyers. That is only six years away. There have been problems with the project, which is already two years behind schedule. The director of the programme described some of problems, saying: The indicative design is too big and too expensive and this autumn we will be doing trade-offs to reduce it to something the three nations can afford … We have managed to drive down the complement of the UK version to under 200 naval personnel and we would like to drive down the size from about 6,800 tonnes to about 5,000 tonnes. It is a late stage to examine such basic issues.

I understand that there are also problems with the missile, combat management, communications and electronic warfare systems. That is a comprehensive list of problems. Is the Minister still confident that the common new generation frigate will enter service on schedule? In view of the problems, is the MOD actively considering alternatives, such as the possibility of more type 23s or the building in Britain of destroyers of the United States Arleigh Burke class? What missile system might be incorporated if the principal anti-aircraft missile system under consideration now is not available on schedule?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

I would not have intervened but the hon. Gentleman generously advised us that he cannot stay for the reply. What condition does he think the programme was in when his party left it to us?

Mr. Maples

I have sought to make some party political points, but I deliberately changed my tone when I raised this question. I am not seeking to make such a point. I do not know exactly what state it was left in, but the Minister and his colleagues have been responsible for this country's defence since 1 May last year. They have presumably been addressing the problem. I simply want to know what conclusions they have reached and whether they have considered alternatives in the event that the problems prove insurmountable, or insurmountable within the time frame. The type 42s are old, carry an old missile system and are widely thought not to provide adequate air defence. That gap in the Navy's defences must be filled quickly.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that it is not a question of buying a system off the shelf with the principal anti-air-missile system and the associated radar systems? Those systems have to be developed. It would be a retrograde step to decide now to buy abroad and deny the British defence industry the opportunity to develop areas where it has a two-year head start, provided it gets the support of the Government to introduce it into service.

Mr. Maples

I am not seeking to reopen the decision. Some of the complications arose because this is a three-nation project, and the nations have slightly different requirements. I fear that the project may not be deliverable on time and to its intended capability. What do Ministers think the situation is and what will they do if my fear proves true? Can the Minister confirm that the Tomahawk missile fits to submarines are on schedule and that the two landing platform dock replacements are on target to be delivered as originally envisaged and on time?

Will the Minister give an update on the millennium bug, which is bound to affect many Navy systems? It is highly unlikely that they can all be reprogrammed in advance. What precautionary measures will be taken and what is his current estimate of the likely problem?

Dr. Tonge

I understand that the United States has already tested all its defence equipment through to the millennium to find what happens; joyfully nothing has happened. Should we not conduct a similar exercise, because there is concern among the general population about defence equipment and the millennium bug?

Mr. Maples

I understand that the tests conducted by the United States armed forces have thrown up considerable problems. I assume that part of the programme for dealing with the millennium bug is to conduct some such trials and tests. That is why I asked the question.

I wish to turn to another piece of gross Government incompetence, although this time it is not the fault of Defence Ministers. The fault lies firmly at the doors of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Foreign Secretary. Chile was set to buy two of our surplus frigates next year. It has been a valued customer of our defence industry for some years. In a parliamentary answer to me last week, the Secretary of State for Defence said: I, my Ministerial colleagues, the Chiefs of Staff and my senior officials have met Chilean Defence Ministers and Commanders in Chief on 21 occasions in the UK, Chile and elsewhere since 1 May 1997. That is a serious relationship, not a casual acquaintance. That is a meeting every few weeks.

All the time Senator Pinochet has been in this country, a Chilean procurement mission has been in Britain, too. Overstretch in the Army was not sufficiently bad to prevent the MOD from assigning a regular officer to accompany the mission around the United Kingdom. I understand that it was very successful and was about to conclude extensive agreements to purchase defence equipment when Senator Pinochet was arrested. Potential orders included combat vehicles, tank sights and engineering equipment. They have all been cancelled as a result of the arrest. Will the Minister confirm that more than £200 million of defence sales have been lost? What will he say to those whose jobs are as a result at stake? Has the obvious enjoyment of the student revolutionaries reacting to the news of the arrest been worth those jobs? It is a fiasco that shows how casual the Government are with our nation's true interests when the opportunity for some self-satisfying gesture manifests itself.

That is neither the end nor the worst of the story. In a further parliamentary answer about the frigates, the Secretary of State said: Representative of the Chilean Navy were scheduled to meet my officials for exploratory discussions relating to their frigate replacement programme during a planned visit to the UK at the beginning of November. This will now not take place as originally planned."—[Official Report, 3 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 441.] Those weasel words disguise the fact that we have lost those frigate sales. Not only has the £20 million of refit work that would have been conducted in British shipyards been lost: the MOD has lost £60 million of capital receipts for the sale of the two frigates that would have been available to it next year. What part of our armed forces will have to pay for that shortfall? Will the Secretary of State impress on the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that when they give vent to the prejudices of their student days in exaggerated language, they affect the real interests of this country in a damaging way?

Let us consider another example of the Government playing party politics with the defence budget: the proposed refit of HMS Spartan, another issue that we have raised several times without receiving a satisfactory answer. The Chancellor's footprints are all over this one as well. There are five Swiftsure class submarines. Two have completed refits and one is due to be completed in 2000. Each refit has cost about £200 million and the boats will serve on average a further eight years before being decommissioned. HMS Splendid was due for refit at Devonport in 2003, but it has been cancelled and the boat will be decommissioned instead. That leaves HMS Spartan due for refit at Rosyth next year.

Even though Spartan will still be decommissioned in 2006, only four years after the refit, it is to go ahead. In all innocence, I ask whether the Government would be spending £150 million or £200 million on the refit for only four years extra if the work was being done at Devonport. Rosyth is of course close to the Chancellor's heart because it is close to his constituency. In case Ministers think that this is only party political prejudice, I should add that the Select Committee on Defence shares my concern. At paragraph 229 of its report, it says: We remain unconvinced that a refit for HMS Spartan, … represents good value for money for the taxpayer. I hope that Ministers will reconsider their decision. It looks like a thoroughly bad decision and one that, if they persist with it, will be investigated by the National Audit Office.

What of the question of European defence policy and the nation's alliances? I can think of no more important issue, but here again we find the Government—this time in the person of the Prime Minister—playing politics. In his never-ending quest for a good headline and the short-term friendship of others, there is apparently no national asset too valuable to be put into play. For the sake of a better atmosphere for a weekend in Austria, the Prime Minister was prepared to undermine and throw into doubt our fundamental security alliances and our commitment to NATO. Not only that: he was prepared to reverse his own policy—one about which he had boasted when he came back from Amsterdam.

During the strategic defence review debate, while Ministers were speaking in the House, the Prime Minister was briefing journalists to the effect that he favoured a European defence capability based on the European Union. That was a 180-degree shift from what he said at Amsterdam, when he boasted that he had struck out the development of a European defence identity. In fact, he described the Franco-German plan as "an ill-judged transplant". These exact issues were raised by me and others in the SDR debate, and we were told that nothing had changed. The Secretary of State said: We have a comprehensive view of the role of the European Union and the Western European Union, and the European security and defence identity of NATO.…The challenge for the Western European Union is to take on the tasks that it has been given by the Amsterdam treaty and effectively to use its new powers. The challenge for the European Union is relevantly to apply the common foreign and security policy to events in Europe."—[Official Report, 19 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 974] There was no mention of a defence identity for the EU, but in his interview in The Times, the Prime Minister made it plain that he was ready to drop Britain's long-standing objections to the EU's having a defence capability.

I do not believe that the Secretary of State would deliberately mislead the House on this matter. I can only conclude that he did not know and he had not been consulted. Let us make no mistake. Such a move would be a fundamental change to a policy of long standing and one that the Prime Minister himself vigorously defended at Amsterdam and afterwards. I believe that it would be a damaging change which would wreck the WEU, undermine NATO and endanger the United States commitment to Europe if the EU developed, as it probably would, into a caucus within the NATO alliance.

Such an identity would exclude several important NATO nations such as Norway and Turkey, which are members of the WEU but not of the EU. It would include several neutral states that are not members of NATO. We have an incredibly successful alliance and joint military planning machine in NATO. It has a European arm in the WEU which can do things without the United States if the occasion and need arises. The WEU has an agreement with NATO to use its planning capabilities and to use United States heavy lift, intelligence and other assets. All EU countries are in the WEU, which provides the most comprehensive European forum. Not only is there no need to replicate any of that in the EU but any such move would inevitably damage NATO.

I can only hope that the Prime Minister was, in his usual casual manner, flying a kite, and that now that the Austrian weekend is over he has forgotten the whole idea. When I called one of the nation's most distinguished defence correspondents to discuss the matter, he said, "Oh, he doesn't really mean it. He does this sort of thing all the time. He's just trying to improve the reception he will get from Chirac and Kohl." I hope that that is right because, if there is to be a change in this policy of such magnitude, it should be fully worked out by the Government and discussed by the House. Our fundamental alliances are not the playthings of the Prime Minister's public relations programme. They are crucial foundations of our security and it is as clear an example as we could ever wish for of how unfit the Prime Minister is for the great responsibilities that he holds that he cannot tell the difference.

May I finish by asking the Minister to clarify for us some of the immediate issues surrounding the verification monitors in Kosovo? I assume that plans are being developed at NATO for their evacuation by force if it becomes necessary. I shall be grateful if the Government can confirm that that is being done. Do the Government believe that a further United Nations resolution is necessary before such a plan can be implemented?

We support the general thrust of the strategic defence review in relation to the Royal Navy. We believe that the development of more expeditionary force capability is the right way to go and that that will involve a force structure for the Navy different from that needed for the cold war. We are delighted that the Government are pursuing so many of the initiatives that we began, and that they are taking forward the strategy and policies that we started.

Recruitment and retention are probably the most important immediate issues facing the Navy—crucial as they are to overstretch. We shall be watching the Government's performance in this area closely.

We are frankly horrified at the casual toying with NATO's credibility for short-term favours. The Secretary of State should explain to the Prime Minister that it must stop. We are concerned at the cuts in the numbers of surface ships and submarines, and that programmes such as horizon appear to be in difficulty. An early replacement for the type 42 destroyers is vital.

By far the most important aspect of this naval strategy will be the two new carriers. The Government have failed to clear up the confusion surrounding their intentions by continuing to examine the alternative of extending the lives of the existing carriers. I urge Ministers to clear the matter up. Otherwise, they will continue to undermine the Government's commitment to the strategy outlined in the SDR. If they do that, we will not be able to continue to support them.

5.55 pm
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

I am grateful to be taking part in this important debate on the Royal Navy. My constituency of Dover, whose famous white cliffs have guarded the English channel during this country's darkest hours, has played an important part in supporting the operations of the Royal Navy. Dover continues to maintain close links with the senior service.

Most of our land-based military sites, such as the Old Park barracks in Dover and the Royal Marines barracks in Deal, were closed down in the last five years of the Conservative Administration. Most of our maritime activity is now centred on roll on/roll off ferries, which make up a significant part of the British merchant fleet. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was proud to sail with that merchant fleet. I should like to concentrate my remarks on the crucial support role that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the rest of the military fleet provides to the Royal Navy and the other two services.

I am pleased to welcome the proposals in the strategic defence review in respect of the Navy, especially the recognition that in the post-cold-war environment we must be prepared to go to the crisis rather than have the crisis come to us. I also welcome the recognition of the importance of strategic transport that flows from that. Particularly welcome are the two additional aircraft carriers, about which we have heard a great deal during the past 10 or 15 minutes, the additional four ro-ro vessels and the 10 per cent. increase in the Royal Naval Reserve. That new tonnage has been widely welcomed. It will help to fill the gaping holes left in the maritime support capabilities that we inherited from the previous Administration.

In the same way as the Royal Naval Reserve has an important and valued role in supporting the military, the Merchant Navy plays an essential role in supporting the Royal Navy and the other two services in times of conflict. The decline and virtual wipe-out of the merchant fleet over which the Tories presided has left us with insufficient vessels to provide the necessary level of support.

I realise that the fortunes of the red ensign lie mainly with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions rather than the Ministry of Defence. We all look forward to the shipping White Paper—the daughter White Paper—which is about to be published. However, in these days of so-called joined-up politics, and in the spirit of the strategic defence review with its emphasis on joint action between the services and a co-ordinated approach to planning, it would have been encouraging to see some recognition in the SDR of the role of the Merchant Navy in supporting the military. It would have been helpful to see some indication of Minister's views on the size of the fleet below which effective support could not be provided.

The British merchant fleet has long held a key role in our nation's defences, which is why it is traditionally called the fourth arm of our services. Yesterday, we remembered the dead of two world wars and all the other terrible conflicts of the past 80 years. In world war two, the merchant service fulfilled its defence role to the full and suffered proportionately greater losses than any other service. As well as providing operational support for the Royal Navy and back-up for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in the form of tankers, supply vessels and other strategic vessels, it provides transport for our troops, weapons, munitions and aircraft. However, the dreadful decline suffered by the merchant fleet has put such guaranteed support in jeopardy. As recently as 1988, the Select Committee on Defence stated: The availability of merchant shipping for defence purposes is governed by three factors—the number of UK flagged ships, their accessibility when they are needed, and a pool of British seafarers to man them. There are grounds for concern on all counts.

When Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, the British merchant fleet was the fourth largest in the world; it now ranks 29th in the league table. In the same period, the number of British seafarers employed in UK ships has fallen from 63,000 to fewer than 17,000, and the fleet is now the smallest it has been this century, standing at fewer than 240 ships. Given that background, it would be unfortunate if all the good work for the Royal Navy proposed in the strategic defence review were to be undermined by our inability to provide safe guaranteed support from merchant shipping.

We all applauded the crucial role played by the Royal Navy in the Falklands war, but speaking after that conflict in 1982–16 years ago—Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse said: Without the ships taken up from the trade the operation could not have been undertaken. Even at that time, there were insufficient British ships, so foreign tonnage, including six oil tankers, had to be chartered from foreign nationals. Since the Falklands war and the admiral's warning, the size of the UK fleet has fallen to less than one third of its strength in 1982. With fewer than 240 ships, we now lack the ability to carry out a repeat of the Falklands task force operation. Unfortunately, the previous Government did not learn the lessons of the Falklands and they ignored the dangers of relying increasingly on foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed ships. Consequently, by the time the Gulf crisis hit us, the Admiralty was forced to charter foreign vessels on a grand scale. Only eight of the 143 ships on charter flew the red ensign and were signed up to the British registry.

Some might say that the Gulf operation proved the soundness of relying on foreign charters, but that is not true; instead, it proved that there were dangers inherent in taking such action. There was the danger of delaying military operations—because of problems with the delivery of troops and equipment, there was concern that some units were not combat ready until well after the deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. There was the danger of being held to ransom by foreign ship owners who wanted to exploit tight markets. We heard reliable reports that the Ministry of Defence had to pay as much as three times the going rate to charter ro-ro vessels.

Mr. Hancock

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree that much of the blame for those problems lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the previous Government, because of the way in which they somewhat gleefully presided over the decline of the British merchant fleet and did little or nothing to stop that decline or to encourage British-based companies to continue to crew their British-flagged ships with British seamen.

Mr. Prosser

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I remember listening to debates in the House during which, time and again, the Conservatives thrust forward the ideas of non-intervention and free markets. They gave little or no support to the Merchant Navy during their 18 years in government.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that, at this very moment, P and O Stena is doing precisely that—paying off British staff and putting foreign seamen on its merchant vessels? What are the Government doing to prevent that?

Mr. Prosser

The hon. Gentleman knows that P and O Stena's current actions in Newhaven and elsewhere are the result of an inheritance from the Conservative Government who, for 18 years, abdicated their responsibilities, ignored the British merchant fleet and failed to give any support to training. The good news is that there is to be a White Paper that will help the British merchant fleet, encourage the rebuilding of it and arrest the decline that started under the Conservatives.

The third danger of chartering foreign-crewed and foreign-registered vessels is the risk that foreign crews will refuse to enter war zones to support conflicts to which they are not a party. There were several incidents in which seafarers from non-combatant nations refused to sail their ships to the Gulf.

The problems I have described were acknowledged by the deputy commander of the United States forces, Lieutenant-General Calvin Waller. Even before the end of the conflict, a strenuous debate had started in the United States about the problems resulting from having to charter non-US-flagged ships. Since the war, the Americans have taken action. An example of that is the passage last year of the US Maritime Securities Act, which includes a 10-year, $1 billion programme to ensure the retention under the US flag of 50 "military-useful" merchant vessels, thus helping the US to guarantee its sea-lift capacity. They have also introduced other supportive measures for their fleet. By contrast, in this country there was little debate and little action. Although the provision of two ro-ro vessels and the new proposals for a further four heavy-lift ro-ro vessels are welcome, it is thought that we might need twice that number to meet all our defence requirements.

The National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, which is the Merchant Navy officers' union—to which I am affiliated—considers that the number of product carriers, tankers, general cargo vessels, ro-ros and large container ships remaining in the UK register are now well below anticipated defence needs. The first Atlantic Conveyer, which was lost in the Falklands war and replaced with Government money, was flagged out before the last election. The loss of that high-capacity, deep-sea container ro-ro vessel represented a significant loss of sea-lift support and it is regrettable that the Conservatives failed to take any action to maintain that strategic vessel within the British registry.

The Government's proposals for the modernised Royal Navy rightly lay much emphasis on people and recruitment, training and skills. The British Merchant Navy in general, and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in particular, will also need support for training and recruitment if those services are to maintain sufficient numbers of skilled officers and ratings to meet the needs of changing technology and to provide effective crews in times of conflict. The Government's improved SMART—support for maritime training—programme for the Merchant Navy is welcome, but it is only a start. We look forward to more assistance with training when the shipping White Paper is published later this year.

The special role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in supporting the Navy and other services is well known. The RFA now represents the biggest employer of UK seafarers and invests considerable resources in training and staff development. Unfortunately, it is being penalised by its own success, because its well-trained officers and ratings are much sought after by other shipping companies and by shore-based industries. As a result, staff turnover is high and there are problems with recruitment. The Government have excluded the RFA from SMART funding because they say it is part of a public sector organisation, but there are many examples of public status not prohibiting public funding, so I hope that the appropriate Ministers will reconsider that decision.

After two decades of severe decline—the most serious decline of any major maritime nation—Britain faces a crisis in its strategic requirements for merchant ships and seafarers. As Ministers prepare to implement the welcome proposals of the SDR for the Royal Navy, I urge them to take special account of the warnings of almost every Select Committee on Defence for the past 16 years and the submissions from the shipping unions and the Chamber of Shipping, which have consistently pressed home the crucial role that the merchant marine has played in past conflicts, and the imperative to keep it in good shape to meet the challenges of future hostilities—which, sadly, as we meet tonight might not be too far over the horizon.

6.9 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate because I represent Portsmouth, South, which is the traditional and historic home of the Royal Navy. Twelve members of my family have served in or worked for the Royal Navy since the beginning of the first world war. I grew up within a few yards of the main naval base, and I know from that experience that the Navy played a part in the everyday life of the area. Tales of royal naval ships, past and present, were recounted with love and affection by people in the city.

There were also tales of the Under-Secretary's predecessors; some of those characters were as well known as the ships that served in the Navy. I am delighted that he is wearing his Admiralty board tie. There was a time when his predecessors had a uniform to go with the tie, and it was not long ago that many of them paraded around Portsmouth wearing that uniform.

This is an important debate on the future of the Royal Navy. We have had several opportunities over the past few weeks to discuss elements of defence. The Royal Navy has—and will, I hope, continue to have—a special place in the hearts of the British people. There are a number of reasons for that, not least the historic connections going back to well before Nelson's time.

The Navy continues to be in the news daily. In the past few weeks alone, we have heard of the tremendous efforts of the crews of HMS Sheffield, HMS Ocean and RFA Sir Tristram and the Royal Marines, all of whom have been deployed providing humanitarian aid and rescuing people from life and death situations in central America. In earlier debates, we have talked at great length about the crew of HMS Southampton and its humanitarian work in the Caribbean, and many Members have recounted their experiences in the Falklands, the Gulf and, more recently, the former Yugoslavia. The Royal Navy is recognised across the world.

The Minister for the Armed Forces referred to the special way in which the Royal Navy had responded to the strategic defence review. He spoke of its up-front and positive reaction to a review that could not have been an easy experience, coming as it did on the heels of the savage cuts inflicted on the Navy by previous Conservative Defence Ministers. I remember, as other Members do, the year before the Falklands war, when the then Secretary of State, John Nott, made bitter, swingeing cuts not only to the work force and personnel but to equipment. That seriously undermined our nation's effort in the Falklands, and possibly led to the conflict, because the messages sent out by cutting the Navy certainly opened the door of opportunity for the Argentines.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I, too, have a memory of those days, and far more of a signal was sent to the Galtieri regime by the irresponsible policies of unilateral nuclear disarmament and the parades held in favour of it by members of the party that is now in government, and especially by members of the hon. Gentleman's party at the time. The Argentines were perfectly surprised that Britain went to war in that atmosphere, for which the hon. Gentleman's party bears a great deal of the responsibility.

Mr. Hancock

That is sadly predictable twaddle. The hon. Gentleman misses the point completely. Our ability to service a fleet travelling 8,000 miles away from home was seriously undermined, as was the morale of the services, by the actions of the then Tory Government, who were determined to make substantial cuts to the Royal Navy.

The way in which the Royal Navy is either welcomed or feared around the world is very interesting. When a royal naval ship appears in a port, often it is welcomed by the mayor and local dignitaries. When a royal naval ship appears on an adversary's coastline, it creates fear, because a potent challenger has turned up on the doorstep. We could, of course, question the role of our ships in some instances. Some of us would ask what was the role of HMS Cornwall on the coastline of Sierra Leone early this year. Perhaps we shall receive detailed answers to that question at some point. What rings out loud and clear about the Royal Navy is its reliability when and where it is needed. This and other Governments have relied heavily on the commitment and determination of the Navy's personnel—men and women—and civilians to work hard and defend this country's interests.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Minister's commitment to addressing personnel issues in the Navy. Much more must be done. I also welcome the fourth Trident boat, and the good news that it will be launched this autumn. Once again, the Navy has displayed determination and commitment to enable that project to come to fruition. The future visits of Royal Navy ships to former Soviet bloc countries are to be welcomed. The recent experiences in Poland, in Russia and, as the Minister said, in Syria are good examples of the Royal Navy being the first to break into new territory.

The improvement and replacement of ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the commitment to replace HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid are long overdue and most welcome. We want to ensure that a sister ship for HMS Ocean is also provided during this Parliament, because that would be an essential addition to strategic naval planning.

I welcome the determination to spread equal opportunities throughout the armed forces. I would be happier if the Under-Secretary, when he replies, gave a clearer answer than that given by the Armed Forces Minister when he was asked whether gay people should be allowed to continue to serve or to be recruited into the Royal Navy. He said that he would ensure that those issues were put before the House. That is different from the messages sent out by Labour Members when they were in opposition. Many of us are curious about what issues the Government will put to us. I hope that the matter will be taken up again by other hon. Members who have already raised it.

It would be wrong of me not to use at least some of the time available to me to discuss issues in Portsmouth, which has long suffered the aftermath of Government cuts in defence expenditure. When I was growing up in Portsmouth, the dockyard employed more than 40,000 people. The civilian work force in that naval base is now fewer than 1,000, which is a dramatic decrease. The number of service personnel in the area has also declined. As recently as a fortnight ago, the Armed Forces Minister wrote to tell me of further civilian job cuts in my constituency.

We need to know as soon as possible—more importantly, the work force and their families need to know—the Government's proposals for their future. Will the Government encourage the greater flexible use of the fleet maintenance repair operation resources? What are the long-term prospects for the employees at Fleetlands and other bases in and around Portsmouth?

Decisions need to be made about the future of the naval hospital at Haslar, not only because many people in Gosport and Portsmouth use the hospital, but because that planning is essential to the future growth of hospital provision in the Greater Portsmouth area. The hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and I recently wrote a joint letter to the Minister seeking clarification and speedier decision-making. We need openness and transparency in all those matters.

While we are on the subject of transparency, I hope that the Minister will explain why he cannot reveal to the House and the people of Portsmouth what capital receipts the Ministry of Defence received for the sale of the gun wharf and the HMS Vernon site. I am mystified that information about the sale—which is a one-off—can be withheld. I can surmise only that, as the site was not sold to the highest bidder and the developer stands to make tens—if not hundreds—of millions of pounds from its development, the Government are slightly embarrassed by the price that they secured.

The sale of that land, which was prime real estate in anyone's book, and probably the most marketable and most easily disposable site outside London in the Ministry of Defence portfolio, is now a state secret—so much so that the Minister will not answer parliamentary questions on the subject. Many hon. Members are curious about why it is so important to keep that information secret when we know for a fact that the site was not sold to the highest bidder.

As other hon. Members have said, this is the third defence debate to be held in the past three and a half weeks. I welcome the initiative that was first mentioned by the Minister for the Armed Forces in introducing the second of those debates, when he said that he hoped to change the formula for dealing with defence issues. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), reiterated that today. Rather than holding single service debates, it might be better to have issue-led debates in the future, on matters such as procurement, personnel and so on.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon also asked that the timing of defence debates be considered more sympathetically. I apologise on behalf of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is unable to attend today's debate. He is a member of the North Atlantic Assembly, and is currently attending a meeting in Edinburgh. I see that many familiar faces from both sides of the Chamber are also absent because they are committed to attending that important meeting. It is regrettable that so many of the usual participants in, and supporters of, defence debates are absent from the House today.

The Minister has failed to respond to several issues raised in previous debates. Recruitment is one such issue, and the problems in that area were outlined again tonight. The Royal Navy is short of 1,500 people. The strategic defence review says that full manning will be achieved by 2002, but that remains a serious problem. The Government have not provided specific answers as to how people will be recruited, and how the existing well-trained personnel will be retained.

I do not think that the Armed Forces Minister provided a satisfactory answer to the question about pilots. Many pilots in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and helicopter pilots in the Army, receive extremely attractive packages from private industry every day. What will we do to ensure that they stay in the services? We know why they are leaving, but the Minister must tell us what the Government intend to do to make their situation more palatable.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Armed Forces Minister's predecessor, the present Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), addressed that issue by giving a commitment that the Government would talk to the airlines to see whether they could agree a package? We would be grateful to hear the outcome of those discussions.

Mr. Hancock

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as I remember that comment well. Perhaps the Minister will update tonight the progress that has been made in that area. However, as many pilots leave the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force to work abroad, I am not sure whether a discussion with British-based airlines will help. It was also suggested that people could be rounded up at jobcentres and recruited into the Royal Navy—which is only one step away from press-ganging.

A recent answer to my written question revealed that the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm is 12 pilots short. That does not sound like many, but we should remember that only 24 pilots complete their training in a good year. Many pilots are leaving the service: 10 times as many pilots asked to leave this year as in 1993. Some 27 pilots applied to leave the service last year—which is three more than qualify in any one year. How will we fill that gap? There is a job to be done, and we must find a way of turning the tide.

We must also turn the tide of departures from the Marines. Well-trained officers—captains of 28 and 30—are leaving the service, as are well-qualified NCOs. I made that point in the general SDR debate. Those service men face promotion logjams, and must make very difficult choices. The situation is the same for Royal Navy personnel: when they progress above junior rank, they encounter a logjam that is difficult to shift. That is despite the fact that ships are going to sea with 5 per cent. and 7 per cent. crew deficiencies—or "gapping", as the Minister calls it.

It is not enough to say that we understand the problems—that will not boost morale in the Royal Navy. We will boost morale only if we come up with solutions that unlock those opportunities, and show young officers that they will have a future in the Royal Navy or the Royal Marines until they are 42 or 50. Many service men are taking serious decisions to leave literally months after completing very expensive, drawn-out training programmes. Undermanning is a serious problem in the Royal Navy.

If HMS Invincible were at sea today, it would not be right for it to be short of 50 or 60 crew members. Ships such as Invincible are the mainstay of our defence capability. A ship that must offer offensive or defensive support to our service personnel on land cannot go to sea with that sort of deficiency in its crew numbers. We must get to grips with that issue.

People leave the Navy not simply for career reasons. We did not need to invite Colin Powell to this country to tell us about personnel problems in our defence forces. If Channel 4 researchers can find ex-service men who say that they left the armed forces because of racial intolerance, why on earth cannot military intelligence find those people? We need to discuss with them what drove them out.

I do not want to hear Ministers claiming that there is no such thing as racial intolerance in the armed forces, when service personnel at different levels are leaving because of it. Television companies locate those people, interview them and parade them on television, yet the Ministry of Defence is incapable of finding them. For goodness' sake, do not try to tell me that we need Colin Powell to instruct us in dealing with racial intolerance or personnel problems. We ought to be able to address those issues ourselves.

David Allen, then the youngest sailor in the Royal Navy, left the service because of bullying over a long period. They are not my words; any hon. Member can read them in the Library briefing. Perhaps Ministers should meet Mr. Allen and ask him to recount his experiences. They might ask him why he was driven out when he could, and should, have had a long career in the Royal Navy. His is not an isolated case. We need clear proposals for tackling those issues.

I have often said that we need a coherent policy on issues that affect men and women who serve or have served in the Royal Navy, or who have worked for it as civilians. I have mentioned the nuclear test veterans, the Gulf war syndrome people and the asbestos sufferers. In the most recent answers to my questions, I was told that another 106 compensation claims have been made for civilians and service men who were exposed to radiation while serving on or maintaining nuclear submarines.

Those people did not get radiation sickness or radiation-related illnesses by sitting in their front room; they got them while they were serving the country. Why does the Ministry of Defence drag out cases and force those individuals to endure long-winded litigation, causing them much suffering and distress? Suffering from a radiation-related illness is bad enough; can hon. Members imagine what it is like to contemplate two, three or five years of litigation against a Government who must know that there is no defensible position?

Mr. Spellar

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that we are a member of the nuclear industries compensation scheme precisely to avoid some of the problems that he describes?

Mr. Hancock

I understand that entirely, but I should be grateful if, by the end of the debate, the Minister would explain why 106 compensation cases—some of which have been in existence for a considerable time—are outstanding? I know that he cares passionately about such issues; it is obvious, given his previous existence. He well knows what it is like to be on the other side, fighting for one's rights and for compensation for something that is not one's fault, and encountering barriers erected by big business or Government. We need to ensure that the MOD treats service personnel—male or female—and civilians properly.

We must also tackle overstretch. I vividly remember—as must the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, who is sitting behind the Minister—the daily articles that appeared in my local paper about the protracted time that crews on Invincible were away from home last year, and the effect on the morale of crew and their families.

I welcome the idea of setting up a welfare association for the families of both the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. I hope that the decision to base that organisation in Plymouth does not prevent it from having outposts in places such as Portsmouth. The overwhelming majority of service personnel in the United Kingdom—at least those in married quarters—reside in Greater Portsmouth. I am inclined to think that the decision to locate the organisation in Plymouth should be reconsidered, bearing in mind where most of those families and service personnel who live ashore are based.

I hope that the Minister will give us an idea of what he and the Ministry of Defence will do to ensure that overstretch, undermanning and associated morale problems ease in the next two years. I want to ensure that we sign up to a manageable number of commitments, as we have a reduced number of ships with which to fulfil them. The one thing we know for certain is that we have fewer ships available. We also know that Foreign Office Ministers have given us other initiatives, which must be carried out. I should like assurances that overstretch will not be increased—that undermanning of ships' companies will quickly become a thing of the past.

I shall now discuss the two new carriers. Like other hon. Members, I welcomed the suggestion that the Royal Navy would be a significant gainer—if that is the right word—from the SDR, in that it could put two new big ships in the water, which would give us a significant advantage in any seaborne activity. However, we need to ask what package those ships will need.

I am sure that the Ministry of Defence agonised long and hard over the decision to opt for carriers. Even those who have read scant information about carriers know that they are difficult vehicles to protect. The Americans have an in-built protection system. On a ship of 100,000 tonnes with nearly 100 planes on board, the only role of at least 30 per cent. of those planes is to protect the carrier. However, the capability to protect a carrier of half that size from within or from on board is greatly reduced.

I want to ensure that we put two new aircraft carriers in the water, and that the Royal Navy has both the procurement capability and the ships and crews to protect those carriers properly. We want to ensure that those ships can go in harm's way. Certainly, HMS Ocean was not built to go in harm's way. It is a significant omission from the SDR that we have no answer to the question of how will the Government plan to protect those ships when they are in the water.

Other ships should not be sucked out of their commitments to protect carriers. The West Indies guard ship is a classic example, which may easily go. Arguably, it is no longer needed, but a few months ago I was the second speaker at an Oxford Research Group conference at which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), told us that he wanted the Royal Navy, and specifically that ship, to be used extensively to support anti-drug missions in the Caribbean and central America. It therefore cannot go, if we believe that the Foreign Office are leading on many defence-related issues. The ability of the Royal Navy to mount humanitarian missions throughout the world must be maintained and sustained; but will that be possible when it must also defend two very big carriers?

It is logical to discuss the option of retaining and converting the three existing carriers. I do not support that idea for a minute, but I believe that at least one carrier should be converted and retained, because it makes no sense for all three to be tied up simultaneously in Portsmouth dockyard—as I saw at first hand this year—with not one ready for sea. If we had needed to deliver, in a short time, a fully crewed ship that was ready to go, we could not have done so. We heard earlier of the problems relating to two of the existing carriers.

We must consider all the options, but surely no one seriously suggests that the Government's commitment to the two carriers is less steadfast than it was when the Secretary of State made the announcement—or rather, when it was leaked. I hope that the Minister knocks any such suggestion firmly on the head tonight. I hope that, loud and clear, he will robustly defend the position. The Royal Navy deserves that much. It deserves to be told the truth, as do hon. Members.

An aircraft carrier of the type that we are considering would give us a considerable edge, especially in some parts of the world where we may have to operate in the next 20-odd years, where no friendly land power will allow aircraft to operate and to defend land-based troops. Naval colleagues with far more experience than I tell me that carriers can always find good weather for flying, and can travel 600 miles a day.

I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about the suggestion that the French made recently. A recent Jane's Defence Weekly article went into detail about carrier co-operation. The French wanted two nuclear aircraft carriers. They named the first ship, and then were committed to build it. I believe that, if they had not named the ship Charles de Gaulle, they might have found reasons not to build it. Typically, the French, having named the ship well before its keel was laid down, were locked into a position from which they could not move. Perhaps the House should decide to name our two new carriers, putting the Government on the spot, and making it impossible for them to back-track.

Mr. Spellar

HMS Gordon Brown.

Mr. Hancock

No, I cannot imagine anyone in the Royal Navy or the House, other than the Minister, wanting the ship to be named HMS Gordon Brown. I do not believe that the Minister's suggestion is serious, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, who first made it, now regrets it.

It is important that we examine the options for defending aircraft carriers. Has the MOD considered the idea of arsenal ships, which the Americans are seriously considering? Those are missile-based, small-crewed and little more than powered barges, which have the capacity to deliver a killer punch for a low cost. We, too, should look into that.

I was interested in the comments of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). How right he was to go into detail about the decline of the British merchant fleet. A country such as ours, which for the best part of 2,000 years has depended on seaborne trade for its existence, has a merchant fleet of just over 200 British-registered ships. What a disgrace it was that, during the recent incidents in the Gulf, we had to hire ships flagged in Luxembourg. What a bizarre situation. We are an island race, and Britain is the home of all that was best in maritime service, yet we must rent boats flagged in Luxembourg. What a source of ridicule for the then Government.

We must find ways to stabilise what is left of our merchant fleet. We must be sure that, when we need ships, they will be available. The hon. Member for Dover was right not to exaggerate the situation, but to pinpoint issues such as where crews would be prepared to go and what is on offer.

The Minister has often spoken of smart procurement. We must make sure that the British defence industries, like British Aerospace and many others, are given the support they need. The success of the survey ship HMS Scott is a classic example where the prime contractor—in this case, British Aerospace—was able to deliver a ship on time, to cost and to the complete satisfaction of the Royal Navy. We do not want smart procurement, by its very nature, to lead us to believe that we must buy abroad.

Mr. Ottaway

I have listened with frustration to the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and to what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) is saying about the British Merchant Navy. It illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the British maritime fleet. There is more tonnage owned and managed in London than anywhere else in the world. It is simply a matter of corporation tax. Take away corporation tax on British shipowners, and we would have the largest fleet in the world.

Mr. Hancock

I wonder why the hon. Gentleman did not do that when he had the chance to do so.

Mr. Ottaway

I was not in the Government.

Mr. Hancock

The Government did not do that, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was not the only Tory who had a mind to save the British merchant fleet.

On smart procurement, will the Minister give us an assurance that we will always try to buy British? We should buy British in most instances, and we should look for partnerships and co-operation. I hope that the Royal Navy will continue to be the platform for showing the world what is best in British industry and defence manufacturing.

I shall comment briefly on the remarks of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon about the future of NATO. No one in the House dissents from the need to strengthen and rekindle our enthusiasm for European co-operation. NATO is as important now as it was 40 years ago for the defence of freedom and peace in Europe and other parts of the world.

The Minister for the Armed Forces of the day signed up to the WEU when he signed the Amsterdam treaty on behalf of Britain. Future co-operation on defence-related matters would take place not through the European Union, but through the WEU. Our support for NATO would be strengthened by bringing NATO and the WEU closer together, not by taking away the responsibilities of the WEU. The WEU has a unique feature that should commend itself to any hon. Member: it has political accountability at its assemblies and committee meetings. Politicians from this House, another place and other parts of Europe who care passionately play an active part in the development and change of the WEU. I hope that the Government will continue to support it.

I hope, too, that the Government will give as much support to the Royal Navy and its future as the Royal Navy has given and is giving to this country.

The Royal Navy offers reliability when and where we need it. We have taken advantage of that and made use of it. Successive Governments have stood behind its efforts. Ministers will be assured of support in the House and in the Royal Navy if they prove to be reliable and trusted friends of the Royal Navy. Anything short of that would be a great disservice to the past, and, more important, to the future.

6.44 pm
Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans)

My contribution will be much briefer than the previous one. It is entirely appropriate that I speak in the debate as my constituency, St. Albans, is about as far from the sea as one can get. However, I am told that in Roman times galleys sailed up the River Ver which goes through the centre of my constituency, although now there is hardly enough water for a duck to swim in.

As a youth I was an avid reader of C. S. Forrester, and Horatio Hornblower was my hero. Later, I moved on to Alistair Maclean and "HMS Ulysses", and then to Nicholas Monserrat and "The Cruel Sea", which I still read regularly. That generates a romantic view of the Royal Navy, so when I had the opportunity to join the armed forces parliamentary scheme and to be attached to the Navy, I was well pleased. It was a dream come true for me.

I have not been disappointed in my time with the Royal Navy. I have visited and spent time at all the naval training establishments, and I have been impressed with the dedication and commitment to equipping our young people to take their place in our modern Navy. The enthusiasm for the task was infectious. Much of the work at the training schools is now carried out by civilians, and the change from naval to civilian personnel seems to have been almost seamless. It is still going on, with Flagship being developed to carry forward the process; at the same time the facilities at those establishments are being used to their fullest extent.

I remember with particular pleasure the time that I spent at the officer training college at Dartmouth, where Commodore Roy Clare had a refreshing and innovative approach to the training and development of his young officers. I was told that it is common for officers to come up through the ranks. Indeed, I think that a higher proportion of officers do that in the Navy than in any of the other services. That is to their credit. There was a reasonable number of young female officers at the college.

The training in leadership skills was exemplary. I took part in an exercise that was tailor-made for the humanitarian work carried out by HMS Sheffield in the Caribbean. The exercise involved going across a chasm with a rope and two sticks, then setting up a safe environment for a community that had suffered a catastrophe.

I also spent a day on exercises with HMS Invincible and other vessels out in the channel. It included mine sweeping, gun laying and firing and all the other activities that warships need to carry out in time of conflict. All were practised that day. The highlight of the day was the taking off and landing of aircraft. It was an experience and spectacle that I shall never forget. The skill involved in hovering alongside the carrier and then side-slipping on to the deck was awesome. Five aircraft landed within a few minutes; it was a remarkable day. Of all the time that I spent with the Royal Navy, the most remarkable was the eight days spent aboard HMS Sheffield out in the West Indies a few weeks ago, with the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I was made welcome by the captain, Commander Colin Hamp, and his crew and soon settled into life aboard ship. A full programme of activities was organised, which included time spent with each department. I also spent time with the junior ratings in their mess. That was an education. They were a lively bunch, forthright but totally professional. There were about 25 of them in a mess, with a limited amount of space per person. There was little privacy apart from a curtain around each bunk. Hygiene was critical and a great deal of attention was paid to it by officers and crew. I went on evening rounds one night with the executive officer, who found dirt and dust in places that looked perfectly clean to me.

Sheffield had two basic roles—humanitarian work and anti-drug trafficking work. At Montserrat we landed a working party of four men who were to carry out a specific task with the local community, and I was lucky enough to go along and take part in that work. Despite the devastation of their island, the locals appeared to be in reasonable spirits.

We also visited Puerto Rico, landing at the huge American naval base at Roosevelt Roads. I ate a small bucketful of ice-cream and washed it down with a large jug of weak American beer. The Americans have nothing to teach us on the beer front. While there, I was invited on board USS Elrod—an American frigate. I was made welcome and given a tour of the ship, and I met the captain. The American navy seemed very laid back, not nearly as professional as our ship's company and Navy.

The most exciting part of the trip was the chase of a drug trafficking ship. Sheffield was the command vessel of a small squadron involving ships from four nations and two helicopters. In the end, the "go-fast" that we were chasing turned and headed back to Colombia at high speed—a victory of sorts. I was impressed by the handling of the operation by the captain and his team.

The rules of engagement could do with some revision, allowing the captain to be more proactive in the pursuit and stopping of suspected drug traffickers. The Caribbean islands are administered by different countries, and many are independent. Ships often seek safe haven in the territorial waters of those islands. Our ships cannot follow without obtaining clearance from the relevant country, which can take hours, sometimes days. In the meantime, the drug trafficker has long gone. We are taking part in a world war against drugs and we all have an obligation to work together where we can, particularly at the United Nations. If we do not, the crisis will be worse than anything that we have anticipated.

Service personnel usually receive medals for active service. My souvenir version is a ship's hat. On every ship, I collect a hat. I shall not wear one now because it is too small for my big head.

I have enjoyed tremendously my year with the Navy. I found the service in good heart, totally professional and trained to an exceptionally high standard. On 22 July 1807, William Windham, a former Member of Parliament said: Those entrusted with arms should be persons of some substance and stake in the country."—[Official Report, 22 July 1807; Vol. 9, c. 897.] Our Navy is full of people of substance and stake in the country. We have a Navy of which to be proud.

6.52 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate and to register my ongoing admiration and support for those who serve our nation in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Merchant Navy. My colleagues and I are proud of the work that they do and the contribution that they make.

In East Antrim in particular, those resident in the major ferry port town of Larne have, on several occasions, been honoured and privileged by arrangements made by Larne borough council and the Ministry of Defence to host Royal Navy ships' visits. It was a great pleasure to welcome ashore officers and ships' companies, and when the residents also took the opportunity to go aboard. I hope that expenditure cuts will not diminish the opportunity for future ships' visits. Given the good will generated in my constituency, I urge the Government to encourage ships' visits as a means of increasing contact between the civilian population and serving naval personnel—which should also help recruitment.

I take this opportunity to invite the Minister to join me in urging elected councillors in those areas with seafaring traditions to give support and encouragement to organisations such as the sea cadets whose members may ultimately progress to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines or the Merchant Navy.

Many of my constituents are employed in the ship building and aircraft industries in Belfast. Hon. Members with a keen sense of maritime history will acknowledge the contribution made by the Belfast shipyards to the British economy in peace time, and to national security in times of war.

In Northern Ireland the state of the ship building and, latterly, the aerospace and defence industries, has come to represent a microcosm of the economy as a whole. When those manufacturing industries thrive—when orders are coming in and contracts are being won—that is of overall benefit to the economy, materially and psychologically, such is the pride of place given to those industries in the hearts and minds of the people. The ship building industry, more modest in size now than during its halcyon days, still employs more than 1,000 people. The aerospace and defence industries, as represented by Shorts, employ more than 7,000 people in Northern Ireland and a further 3,000 world wide. They are our largest manufacturing employers.

In that context, I come to the specifics of the debate to demonstrate how those industries in Northern Ireland can continue to provide a service for the Ministry of Defence and, in so doing, enhance the local economy. The Royal Navy's new joint strike fighter aircraft is due to enter service on the first of the Navy's new aircraft carriers in 2012. Given the massive multi-billion pound investment which the United Kingdom is making in those aircraft, it is essential that they be equipped with the best possible missiles to ensure that they can provide future air superiority for our forces in the 21st century.

Ulster Unionists believe that, in meeting that requirement, the package offered by Shorts Missile Systems, in conjunction with Raytheon Systems of the United Kingdom, is second to none. The FMRAAM solution—the name given to the Raytheon-Shorts package—is derived from the highly successful combat-proven advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, with upgraded electronics and a new, longer-range rocket motor.

AMRAAM is already in service with the Royal Navy, equipping the Fleet Air Arm's upgraded Harrier FRS2 aircraft. In addition, AMRAAM is also being integrated into the RAF' s current Tornado F3 fighter aircraft, and is already scheduled to arm the Eurofighter 2000 when it enters RAF service in 2004. An AMRAAM-based option offers obvious interchangeability and logistic advantages to the services. Furthermore, the incremental growth path from AMRAAM to FMRAAM provides a low-cost, low-risk solution for the requirement, in keeping with the MOD's new smart procurement initiative.

If selected, more than 80 per cent. of the FMRAAM work share will be undertaken in Europe and, more importantly, 75 per cent. in the United Kingdom. Clearly, the programme is highly important to Shorts Missile Systems and, as I have already suggested, to the local economy itself. Shorts will integrate the missile's key advanced guidance section and electronics unit and perform final assembly and checkout in Belfast. Thereafter, Shorts will also provide logistic support for the system while in service, as well as participating in further upgrades of the missile. That will be significant in fostering high-technology employment in Northern Ireland, and in promoting Shorts Missile Systems as a world-class company with an expanding air-to-air missile business.

The Royal Navy deserves only the very best equipment that can be obtained for our future defence. We in Northern Ireland are confident that the FMRAAM solution will be best for the Royal Navy and for the economic interests of the United Kingdom, and that it will complement the sterling defence provided by Royal Navy nuclear submarines.

6.59 pm
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I am proud to represent the most inland constituency in Great Britain. The Ordnance Survey has calculated that one of the villages in my constituency is furthest from the sea of any in the country, so 1 might be considered ill qualified to speak in this debate. However, my father spent more than 30 years serving in the Royal Navy, and I lived in the Portsmouth area for a long time. I am therefore familiar with naval life and activity from my childhood and teenage years.

That is partly why, this year, I decided to take part in the armed forces scheme, and volunteered to visit naval establishments and ships. By the time that I have finished, I will have spent 21 or 22 days visiting such establishments. It has been an enlightening and enthralling experience. I have been greeted with courtesy and great openness about the Royal Navy's tasks. I have been able to make comparisons with my childhood experience, and occasionally I have met people who served when my father served and asked them about their reactions to the changes that the Royal Navy has faced in the 20 years since he retired.

I have been immensely impressed by the professionalism of those who serve in our Navy. They perform a wide variety of tasks and work hugely complex equipment, and they carry out their immensely difficult tasks on our behalf with great professionalism and commitment. This debate is an opportunity for us to applaud them.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), I spent some time on HMS Sheffield and was delighted at the commitment shown by its crew in providing aid following the disaster in central America. The fact that those professional men and women are able to turn themselves to such a tasks at very short notice shows the tremendously valuable contribution that we can make in peacetime emergencies, as well as the versatility of the Navy that we are now developing. It is a valuable contribution to international aid and relief.

I broadly support the content of the strategic defence review. I have one reservation, which is about not the document itself but the precondition placed on the review. That was a straightforward political commitment to maintaining the Trident system, regardless of the strategic analysis of the need to maintain it. Although I did not disagree with its conclusions, I felt that that part of the document was less well developed intellectually than I should have liked. The relationship between what was being attempted by maintaining the Trident system and the rest of the Navy's strategic objectives was not entirely clear. It seemed to be a case of saying, "We are already committed to maintaining Trident. We have it, and it is an important part of the bargaining process of disarmament in which we should play a part—enough said." More could have been said and done to analyse the role of that commitment in the future.

On the positive aspects, there is a critical focus on flexibility and the ability to project forces for any purpose. I am taken back to my childhood in the 1960s and my father's experience in the Navy in welcoming the return of the carrier. I well remember strategic defence reviews in the 1960s, as a result of which carriers disappeared. At that time, such reviews had different objectives and faced a different enemy, so it is not surprising that they reached different conclusions. I look forward to a commitment to implement the carrier-based option.

I recognise the SDR's important commitment to jointery and the recognition that the Royal Navy may be a means of delivering relief operations staffed largely by other parts of the armed services. I know from talking to serving men and women that naval personnel have entered into that commitment enthusiastically and voluntarily. They regard it as a critical part of a modern Navy to work closely, and in an integrated fashion, with other parts of the armed services, and that should be applauded.

My business experience is most relevant to defence procurement. My father thought that defence procurement was ill organised, run by a group of people with no idea of what they were attempting to procure, took far too long and was far too expensive. Those ideas are still expressed frequently by serving members of the armed forces. In that respect, the world has not changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Therefore, I looked carefully at the ideas for smart procurement in the defence review and was encouraged by what I found.

The McKinsey report, on which much of the SDR is based, and the extremely useful background essay showed that a number of key messages about procurement had been absorbed. Incidentally, I applaud the publication of the background essay, which provided useful and interesting material which allowed one to evaluate the decisions that had been made. The review says that the various elements of procurement should be separated. First, commodity procurement—things which the Navy, like any large organisation, needs—should be done as efficiently, quickly and simply as possible. Secondly, commodities that are broadly like anything else but have a defence bent, but have no risk of innovation going wrong or of one technology not working with another, should have a relatively straightforward procurement process. Thirdly, specific defence-related procurement, which carries significant risk of failure and of the challenges of innovation, should have a more complex and intense procurement process.

That three-tier approach is valuable provided that it is critically and intelligently applied in decision making. What I dread is that the third, top-level category will be used too frequently in the process and that we shall dedicate undue resources to the purchasing of material, which, in some cases, could be acquired through simpler means. That is always a temptation in a service where the relationship with the defence industry is sometimes too close and where awareness of value-for-money concepts disappears as people become obsessed about the latest need for innovation in a particular category, whereas 80 or 90 per cent. compliance with need would be sufficient and could be delivered more quickly.

Also important for procurement are a reduction in project phases—so that the approval stages are reached more rapidly and there are fewer of them—and a closer-working team relationship around the procurement process. All those are entirely laudable and likely to lead to more effective procurement of complex naval equipment.

Plenty of history shows how the process can go wrong. The Merlin helicopter is still awaited with bated breath and, arguably, is strategically inappropriate for many of the Navy's helicopter-borne defence needs. We have waited so long for Merlin's arrival that it no longer has as great a relevance to need as we once thought. Therefore, we have neglected the modernisation of the Lynx system and been led down a path of overloading those machines to a level at which some are of relatively limited effectiveness.

That worrying process is alluded to in the strategic defence review, which also recognises that we shall have to modernise Lynx and cut back orders for Merlin, which is appropriate in the circumstances. Those strike me as correct, although I worry a little whether the modernisation of Lynx will deal with the fact that we may end up with an underpowered and aged airframe carrying immensely complex and heavy additional equipment. That will need further analysis and review: the allusion to the modernisation of Lynx is welcome, but further work needs to be done on whether that will deliver the outcome that we seek.

On the more mundane level, we allow our naval personnel to steer complex and expensive ships, and to make crucial decisions about the life or death of themselves and their compatriots, but we have considerable difficulty allowing them to purchase even the more routine items for the maintenance of operational activity on ship. Naval personnel cannot simply go ashore to buy a black plastic bucket; instead, they must go through the full procurement process, which leads back to the United Kingdom. In some cases, the item will be flown out, at immense cost, to meet requirements.

Most modern companies would issue senior personnel with credit cards and encourage them to use those cards intelligently—subject to the normal processes of discipline when they are not being used intelligently—to purchase the necessary rudimentary equipment to maintain operational activity. I know of ships on which basic equipment is not being fixed and ordinary items are not being replaced simply because of the long supply chain back to the United Kingdom and the complex decision-making process that surrounds it.

I am told that my black plastic bucket comes at about £40 in the defence price list. I should think that any hon. Member who walked into B and Q to buy such a bucket would pay about a fiver, although I have not done so for a while. That shows the immense add-on costs that are borne for the bureaucracy and the time-wasting processes that still seem to be tied up in procurement. We have an opportunity: a lot of useful and high-quality management thought has been put into the high-level procurement process, but the lower-level stuff still labours under a complex and arcane bureaucracy that frustrates many of our personnel.

I also note that the Navy awaits Upkeep, its new computer system for stores. I have run information technology projects, and the project is familiar to me—it is running behind schedule and is having difficulty complying with the specifications. With the move towards consolidation of stores requirements and of sourcing of material, one has to ask whether it makes a great deal of sense to have separate IT systems and projects for each armed service for routine products and commodities. That project, as far as I know, is still going on. There may be strong arguments for why it should, but the logic suggests that it should at least be questioned and placed in the context of a joint response to the same issue.

My last couple of points, I am afraid, again hark back to family loyalties, but ones that I still hold dear. This decision was made by the previous Government, so I direct my criticism across the Floor of the House as much as anywhere else: I have doubts about whether dispensing with the requirement for cheap, quiet diesel submarines is necessarily the right strategy at the moment. Many nations are purchasing such submarines quite freely. They are relatively low technology and extremely efficient, if well armed, in furthering defence requirements.

My instinct is that we have made a difficult choice and lumped for a totally nuclear-powered force under the water, but, if we reconsidered, we might judge that a more flexible response would have included a diesel element to the submarine force. We should review that once again in due course.

In their fisheries protection role, our personnel operate under the management of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. My experience prompted me to ask questions about what task they are performing. The Navy carries out the task, but MAFF essentially instructs. Although our personnel apprehend people who are in breach of fishing regulations, it appears that a prosecution is not pursued in nine out of 10 cases. That will, in the end, have some effect on the morale and views of those who are carrying out that task. If our personnel think that they are performing a valuable function in which they arrest people for breaching the regulations and bring them into port, but hear that no prosecution has taken place—and that happens far more often than not—that will bear heavily on the way in which they consider their task. That is worrying. There is an opportunity to review the relationship with MAFF and how it chooses to manage that particular role; whether that is best management of our fishing stock, which is the strategic objective; and whether it is sensible to maintain an expensive commitment to that role if we are not seriously committed to enforcing the rules.

I have been impressed with the service personnel with whom I spent my time. I brought back many happy memories from the times that I spent this year with naval personnel, and I can report that, in my experience, morale is generally high and people are enthusiastic about, and committed to, their role. Responses to the defence review—I was in a naval establishment on the day that it was announced, so I could listen to views straight away—were generally enthusiastic and supportive.

There are concerns, and I have touched on some which have a bearing on morale—for example, whether people think that their tasks are not being developed seriously and thought through properly. Generally, however, morale is high, the commitment is there and personnel deserve our support. I hope that every hon. Member can give them that support.

7.18 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who gave a thoughtful speech. I did not agree with all his points, but those about procurement—especially lower-level procurement—were well made, and I hope that Ministers will take account of them.

We have heard Back-Bench speeches from the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard)—who, unfortunately, is not in his place—and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire. I represent Mid-Bedfordshire. We would all probably say that we are as far from the sea as it is possible to get, but I am delighted by the way in which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire and the hon. Member for St. Albans were treated when they went on Royal Navy schemes.

I sometimes regret the fact that representatives of Navy News do not attend our debates on the Royal Navy. As one who has been an avid reader of that publication since I myself was in the Navy, I think that it would be good for the Navy if it reported what Back Benchers thought. It would be a fillip. Friends of mine who are still in the service sometimes feel that Parliament does not understand or care what they do, and most serving officers and men do not know that we have an annual debate on the subject. I think that it is the job of those on Navy News, if they bother to read the report of our debate, to reflect the warm words of Members of Parliament in the editorial columns.

Not since Patrick Duffy, the Labour Minister responsible for the Navy between 1976 and 1979, and Keith Speed, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in a Conservative Government between 1979 and 1981, have we had a defence Minister who has served in the Navy. I suppose that, with so few ex-regulars in Parliament, it is not particularly surprising that not one of today's Ministers has served in the armed forces, but I find it regrettable. I do not blame the Ministers, for it is not their fault. It is a fact of political life nowadays.

The problem is not, of course, insuperable. The Government seem to have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who cannot count, a Secretary of State for Trade and Industry who has never run anything and a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who does not know his mangels from his wurzels, and it is true that, after a bit of time, someone who is new to a Department may turn out to be a good Minister. Nevertheless, if defence Ministers have not served in the armed forces, service chiefs and civil servants will sometimes get their way when they should not. Such people are not infallible.

The Royal Navy went to the Falklands with no early-warning aircraft, in type 21 frigates with aluminium superstructures. We saw the abolition of a reserve fleet, which I consider to have been a mistake, and changes by the last Government to the Royal Naval Reserve, which I think were profoundly mistaken; and, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire pointed out, we have seen the Navy gold-plating much of the equipment that it has bought, when almost the same type of equipment has been available on the civilian market.

Service chiefs and civil servants do not always make the right decisions. Sometimes it is better for Ministers who understand the services to introduce a bit of common sense into decisions, because some of those decisions protect people's turf. It must be admitted that, on one or two occasions, the fact that Ministers have not understood the subject has proved quite valuable. It was, after all, a Labour Government who decided to scrap all the carriers. The Admiralty, rather cleverly, did a bit of spin doctoring, called the carriers through-deck cruisers and managed to get small aircraft carriers—and it is on the subject of carriers that I wish to begin my speech.

Mr. Hancock

The hon. Gentleman has already had 10 minutes.

Mr. Sayeed

I have been warming up. I have a long way to go yet.

The strategic defence review presaged the building of carriers weighing between 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes, carrying some 50 aircraft of a variable mix, and moving from an anti-submarine warfare role to a joint operations warfare role. I have no argument with that: it strikes me as absolutely right. Whether two carriers are enough is well worth debating, but I think it more important to consider whether we will get even one.

Paragraph 234 of the Defence Committee's eighth report states: These new carriers should"— should" is in italics— be fully operational not later than 2018. It now appears to be 2022. The paragraph goes on to state, in bold type, that a capability gap will exist until the new carriers are operational. We recommend that the MOD examine how the capabilities and capacities of the existing carriers could be upgraded before the new carriers are delivered and produce costings of the various options. That is critical. We know that this is an unsafe world; we know that we will need carriers. We have no right to send young men and women to sea without ensuring that their equipment works, and works well.

Paragraph 235 states: The First Sea Lord also admitted that where two carriers had been operated 'back to back' in the Adriatic he was worried about `our operational capability for contingency tasks which arise at short notice.' That was the last First Sea Lord, Sir Jock Slater, being extraordinarily polite—as one would expect him to be. What he actually meant was that two carriers were not enough. Two small carriers are certainly not enough. What we know is that one of the Invincible class carriers has been—I think this euphemism was used—"on very long readiness" for a very long time. The two effective carriers that we have are not enough; we need three carriers capable of putting to sea. That makes the decision on how many carriers will be built in the future absolutely critical.

Paragraph 235 of the report continues: The implications of the decision to procure two rather than three carriers will be that our capability for contingency tasks may be significantly reduced … The ability of the proposed two carrier fleet to be able always to supply both carriers for simultaneous operations has not been adequately demonstrated. Yet, in paragraph 236, the Committee states: We were repeatedly told that the UK's possession of two carriers was central to the SDR's expeditionary strategy, and were assured that the decision to procure such carriers would not be reversed. I hope that promise is kept.

As I have said, I do not believe that two carriers are enough. We should bear in mind refits, docking and essential defects, self-maintenance periods and time on passage—let alone any active service damage, or the shaft problems that we experienced with an Invincible class carrier. Such problems often mean that, even if there are two carriers, only one is ready to go to sea at any given time.

Even more critical are the promised two carriers. They are not due until so far into the future that no funds have been set aside even for the preparatory work. As the strategic defence review bore not the fingerprints but the hoof marks of the Treasury, I will remain unconvinced that the promise will be kept until the First Lord of the Treasury—the Prime Minister—gives the House a categorical assurance that the money will, come what may, be made available to build the two carriers, and to do so on time. I believe that, if times get hard, we will be lucky if even one of them is built.

We know from the SDR that there was a trade-off between the two carriers and the landing platform docks—if they are ever built. The previous Government kept promising the LPDs but never built them, so I do not blame this Government alone—the Tory Government was also at fault. HMS Fearless had a bows-up attitude, as it could not always empty the water out of the stern. I hope that the LPDs will be built, as they will be essential, and I am pleased that HMS Ocean is so advanced in its trials that it can be used operationally.

We know that the frigate and destroyer fleet will be cut by 10 per cent. I believe that the previous Government cut the number of surface warships, particularly frigates and destroyers, by far too much. Anyone who knows how to protect a carrier, which is such a valuable asset, realises that various kinds of ship have to be stationed around it at different distances. Allowing for refits, docking and essential defects, self-maintenance periods and so on, it will be difficult to protect two carriers that are at sea at the same time but operating in different areas. That will be possible only if nearly all the frigate and destroyer force is used and the distance between the carrier and the shore or conflict area is sufficiently great to be in itself a protection. However, carrier forces have to be fairly close in to be effective, which makes them vulnerable. Protection from other major warships nearby and air attack is critical.

I accept that money is tight. Money is always tight, even when one is not at war. When conflict looms, one realises that one does not have sufficient defence capabilities. There are ways round that. It was a considerable mistake to have scrapped any formal reserve fleet. I am not talking about the old reserve fleet of the 1970s, when ships were mothballed and were out of date when they came to be used. There is a procurement case for building hulls that can use modular-designed defence systems or command-and-control and propulsion equipment. That would enable up-to-date systems that can be slotted into hulls to be maintained on shore. As problems or conflicts arise, the number of hulls available could swiftly be increased dramatically.

The Navy also has to have the personnel. One problem is that people in the service have to spend a long time at sea. Those periods are far shorter than they were when I was at sea, but families are now more demanding; they are less accepting of the constraints of service life.

There is no doubt that having Wrens at sea has put pressure on families, as I warned on 5 February 1990 before the Minister even announced his decision. In some activities on warships, such as manning complex electronic equipment, Wrens do a superb job and are often better than male ratings. However, most of them are not built like Laura Davies the golfer and so—as anyone in the service will confirm—have difficulties in lifting heavy equipment, sea boats and so on around ships.

There are pressures on numbers. The Minister is absolutely right to encourage people from ethnic minorities to join the service. The service gives a superb education, a great self-belief and a good understanding of how to deal with the foibles of others in constricted circumstances. It is a superb way of life. The more British people who understand that the armed services are theirs and want to join them the better, so I applaud the Minister on the work that he is doing. His invitation to Colin Powell to address a conference was an excellent idea and I trust that it will bear fruit. However, it is critical that the selection and promotion of those who are black or brown is carried out on exactly the same basis as it is for white ratings and officers. There must be no favouritism, but there must be no discrimination.

In the debate on the SDR on 20 October, I made some points about the Royal Naval Reserve. I believe that the previous Government made a profound mistake in using the reserve to man the gaps in Her Majesty's warships. Until recently, the Royal Naval Reserve had a mine counter-measures role. As I said in that debate, laying mines is one of the cheapest forms of warfare. It is also one of the most damaging to any maritime nation and I find it extraordinary that the SDR has downgraded that risk, as nearly every maritime waypoint—certainly every port on which we rely and certainly the Arabian gulf, from where we get our oil—is easily mined.

The Soviet Union sold tens of thousands of cheap ground and buoyed mines to a large number of countries with which we are rarely in agreement. Those mines can be deployed easily and nefariously from ships and aircraft. A merchant ship or a fishing vessel that seems perfectly innocent can put down enough mines to block Felixstowe, London, Southampton, Rotterdam or Hamburg.

Reserves would have needed retraining to engage in mine hunting, but I wish that the previous Government, instead of using them as a stop-gap to fill empty berths, had retrained them and used them in the specialist role that they have carried out with considerable distinction for decades. The Government have the opportunity to reverse a mistake.

The fleet is getting smaller, and it was too small in the first place. We have superbly capable ships but they cannot be in more than one place at a time. If we are to operate two carriers independently of one another, we do not have enough surface ships to protect them. The Navy is undermanned and we have to take action.

The service is a great career for any young man or woman. The Government are right to encourage more people to join the Royal Navy, but they must prove to those in the service that they will at the very least fulfil the promises that they have already made. They have to earn the trust of those whom we, as a country, trust to defend us.

7.41 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

As one of an ever-diminishing number of Members of Parliament to have served full time at sea in the Royal Navy, I am the first to admit that, since I joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a boy, there has been massive change both in our country and at sea. There has been a massive change in ship design and in the capability of modern warships.

I served in a previous HMS Birmingham, and if ever I feel a need to be reminded of ships of my vintage and the on-board conditions of those days, I need only go to the pool of London and board HMS Belfast. I look forward to the arrival of HMS Cavalier in Chatham, and her restoration and opening to the public, because I believe that that will create enormous interest for future generations and be a fitting memorial to the 153 destroyers and approximately 30,000 sailors lost at sea in the second world war.

There has been massive change in our society, but certain things do not change: for example, the elements in which the Royal Navy operates, and that most fundamental aspect of life on earth, human nature. I want to speak about those four things—ships, the society in which we live, the elements and human nature—all in the context of the Royal Navy.

I join my hon. Friends in deprecating the decision to reduce still further both our surface and our submarine fleet. We have not had a satisfactory answer on what commitments have been shed to enable that reduction to take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) spoke of the sheer impossibility of mounting a proper escort for two aircraft carriers at sea. In war conditions, we would struggle to support only one carrier.

I welcome the Government's commitment to continuing the previous Government's policy of strengthening amphibious forces. Since the end of the second world war, not one of the conflicts in which this nation has been involved was anticipated by any of us: every conflict was unforeseen, and it is a great tribute to the men and women of our armed forces that they were able to acquit themselves with great distinction in those conflicts with weaponry that was designed for another purpose. The Royal Navy's weaponry was designed to counteract the submarine threat from Russia, which did not materialise.

I remind the House that the assets central to the policy of strengthening our amphibious forces were ordered under the previous, Conservative Government: very recently, the helicopter landing ship HMS Ocean came into service, and we look forward to the appearance of the replacement ships for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. The acid test for the new Labour Government's commitment to the Royal Navy is the progress that they make, and are seen to make, in ensuring that the two new aircraft carriers enter service on time in 2012, and are not subject to downsizing in the meantime.

Cost is the big factor: modern warships containing the latest technology are hugely expensive. Ministers' responsibility for maintaining a modern Navy is not helped by the speed of technological advance, which threatens to make even the newest ships rapidly obsolescent.

There is, however, another side to the coin: the cost to industry and to our overall economy of not maintaining a thoroughly modern Navy. Down the years, the Royal Navy has been at the forefront of technological development, with, for example, the first ironclad warship in the world; the application of, successively, the steam engine, the diesel engine, gas turbines and nuclear reactors for propulsion; the use of electricity and electronics for communications and sensors; vertical take-off aircraft; the angled deck; the ski jump; and a host of other uniquely British inventions.

The value and importance of the Royal Navy to British industry and the British economy cannot be overstated. It is, and we hope always will be, the customer of British industry. It keeps many sectors of British industry at the cutting edge of technological development. New orders for the Royal Navy are vital to our manufacturing base, and I trust that Ministers will never lose sight of that fact.

The justifications for maintaining a credible modern fleet are plain to see: peacekeeping operations, as in the Adriatic; policing, as in the Falklands and the Caribbean; protecting offshore gas and oil installations and British fishermen in what are still—but only just—British waters; and, not least, deterring aggression and, in the final resort, defending by force the United Kingdom and Britain's interests overseas.

It is said that the service will or must reflect the society in which we live. That is undoubtedly true, as it can do no other, but—and, for me, this is a very big but—that is not a justification for saying that it must compromise its efficiency and its standards by accommodating all the minority groups and interests of a dysfunctional society. People who join the Navy do so for a range of different reasons: the call of the sea; to see the world; to belong to a disciplined organisation; to learn a trade; to serve their country; and perhaps to escape their home environment. Let us not ignore the fact that many in that last category may be trying to escape an environment corrupted by, for example, absent parents, child abuse, drugs, homosexuality, law breaking or violence. Those are just some of the aspects of our modern society that cannot be tolerated, and must not be reflected in our ships at sea. I hope that I make myself clear, and I trust that the Minister, who is not paying attention at the moment, will confirm that he agrees with me.

I turn to those aspects that do not change—including, first, the elements. Untold thousands of people around the world today owe their lives to the Royal Navy. Thousands of merchant seamen, fishermen and yachtsmen have been rescued from shipwreck by the Royal Navy. Countless thousands have been the beneficiary of emergency aid distributed throughout the world by the Royal Navy. Now, in Honduras, disaster relief is being delivered by 45 Commando Royal Marines, HMS Ocean and HMS Sheffield and the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries, Sir Tristram and Black Rover. The Royal Navy, working in its element, provides a wonderful service for many people who face hardship today.

The extremes of weather that have recently devastated Honduras are not confined to the land. I remind the Minister that worse things happen at sea. Huge tankers disappear without trace. Strong men are rendered useless by seasickness. Warships are set on fire from stem to stern, as happened in the Falklands conflict. In such eventualities, the sailor has to have one hand for himself and one hand for his ship. In such circumstances, who will have a hand for the weaker sex? That is not the only question, or even the biggest question, affecting the role of women at sea. The real question is one of human nature, and I shall turn to that point shortly.

Asked about women at sea, the commanders of ships—the captains, the commodores, the admirals and all the top brass—say that it is a splendid idea. They describe the women who serve in our ships at sea as worth their weight in gold, and say that the Navy could not do without them. However, if one asks the ratings, or better still, the wives of men serving in mixed-manned ships, one gets a different answer. To incarcerate scores of young people of opposite sex in close quarters for weeks at a time is asking for trouble. And trouble, whatever the politically correct top brass may say, is what they get.

I do not base my opinion on the number of offences against the so-called "no touching" rule, or on the number of service women getting pregnant, but on my experience as a young man at sea, and recollections of the emotions and jealousies that the fair sex stimulates among fit young men in the prime of life. I am talking about human nature, and two aspects in particular.

The first is the recognition that to expect young men and women to suppress their feelings and emotions for each other while aboard ship is a triumph of hope over experience, and the second is that expecting commissioned officers to question the received wisdom is tantamount to asking them to make a choice between a principle—which, after all, has been determined by their political masters—and their careers. We see the reluctance of senior officers to question the policy, just as we see the reluctance of politicians to put principle before their own preferment. All too often, we see that happen in the House, so why should we believe that it does not happen in other professions?

I do not ask the Minister to reply directly to me tonight on those two points, but I ask him to undertake to miss no opportunity to talk to the sailors themselves. While he is doing so—preferably out of the earshot of civil servants and officers in charge—he might like to ask them about the effects of overstretch, which is a serious worry to service men and women. I want the Minister to talk to sailors about the effect of overstretch and undermanning on the morale of the lower decks. As the Minister responsible for the Royal Navy, he has an especial duty of care to investigate those personnel matters thoroughly.

Our Navy never sleeps. Around the clock and around the world, the Royal Navy performs its useful tasks, defending us against aggression, protecting British interests, supporting the peace makers and helping others less fortunate than ourselves. Money spent on the Royal Navy is well spent, and I trust that the House wishes to record its sincere thanks to the men and women of the Royal Navy for a job well done.

7.54 pm
Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on a fluent speech. I did not agree with all his conclusions, but he delivered it well and made my task that much more difficult. When the strategic defence review came out, the Navy and the Royal Marines gave a sigh of relief, because they fared better than most, and that should be noted in a debate on the Navy.

I wish to make some narrow points about people who do not always get mentioned—the civilian workers who support the fleet in all its various establishments. I know that my colleague, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), agrees with me about their contribution. I served for 39 years as a civilian worker and represented them at national level. I live in Portsmouth, I have salt water running through my veins, and I have qualified in jack speak; and I want to give the House an idea of the feelings caused by knowing and working with people who are in difficulties most of the time.

It has frequently been proposed that the civilian work force should be privatised, market-tested or have more efficiency squeezed out of it. Such proposals, which undermine morale, have come up year in, year out. The only time that anything changed was after Keith Speed's review, and that was cheered by many of the work force, because at last somebody had asked what the services wanted, which worked well with the civilian workers' ideas. Reviews by any other Minister, Tory or Labour, are feared.

I want to talk about the people of Portsmouth dockyard. Although it is in Portsmouth, South, many of my constituents work there, and I work with my colleague, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, to look after the work force. We are both concerned about the move to the privatised company, Fleet Support Ltd. and about the people who have worked in support of the fleet for many years. Many of them worked with redundancy notices in their pockets to get the fleet ready for the Falklands. They feel disposed of when such a privatisation happens. I know that the Minister listens to the representatives of the industrial work force at national level, and that he understands the civilian workers' problems. Whether he can do anything about them is another matter. The civilian workers feel unwanted. People such as myself have urged them to take a more modern view of the future. Even trade union officials have encouraged them to change their ways, and the management of FSL have tried to impose a new scheme of annualised hours. However, the work force rejected it in a ballot by 500 to 40, which shows the strength of their feelings—they do not want to know. They face an uncertain future. Having had the protection of the Ministry of Defence for many years, they are now out in the cold, and they are worried. They have rejected the management moves, even though many of us have tried to encourage acceptance. They are told that they are too expensive, and that costs are too high. I was one of the highest paid craftspeople in the Ministry of Defence before I became a Member of Parliament. During my last year in that work, I grossed £13,000 with overtime and a bonus.

In the naval base, wages are even lower than that, although there are allowances, bonuses and overtime. The pay is very low, but staff are told that they are too expensive, and that costs must be cut. An annualised hours scheme is a means of doing away with overtime, giving workers a basic rate of pay, and improving efficiency. I do not disagree with management achieving more efficiency, but worker morale will go down. People become really sad if even more has to be cut from such low wages. It is very depressing.

My neighbour, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, derided me in a previous debate for saying that there was more fat in the system. As one who worked within the system, I can say that there is some fat. However, the civilian work force will not give total effort to management they do not trust. At least 25 per cent. more efficiency could be gained if the workers felt free to help the boss to be more efficient. I frequently tried to encourage the feeling of partnership for the sake of the business, but the way in which MOD establishments have been privatised means that there is no gain for workers in bringing about such efficiency. There is only the sack, or redundancy.

I urge Ministers who are responsible for support services to the fleet and the Navy to consider workers who have given their all to their country in their own way. Many of them are ex-service men. They must be encouraged to participate, and given some share in the benefits of efficiency. For years, the previous Government told us that our pay would be tied to efficiency. The new Government are saying the same sort of thing, but I can speak only from experience of what happened under the previous Government.

Our efficiency went up and up year after year, but they told me, a worker, that despite all those efficiency gains, they were sorry that my pay was stuck on a figure that was acceptable to the general public. Pay rises had to be limited to 2.5 per cent., no matter what the efficiency gain. At some point, efficiency gains will have to be tied to increases in pay. Only then will people release themselves to work with the company to make business better. No doubt no one will take any notice of me, and it would be difficult for Ministers to feed what I say into the system. If anyone can do it, I know that the Minister of State can, because of his negotiating abilities.

I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who has just left the Chamber, about Navy News. Not enough is done to publicise what hon. Members say about the Navy, or about the services in general. The parliamentary armed forces scheme has much to answer for. Many of us mention that we have taken part and gained from it, but some people might think that it is a bad thing, intended just to keep us quiet.

I hope to fly to Honduras on Sunday with the Royal Marines, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), and the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). I hope that the trip will not be a hair-raising experience for any of us. It might be more so for some than for others, but the hon. Member for Lichfield is a first-class partner in our team. We live in close quarters on ships with the Royal Marines, who make us do what they do. We do not just visit and view; we have to get stuck in and mix with the troops. The hon. Gentleman has been a first-class competitor and supporter. That is the first time I have ever supported a Conservative.

The scheme is excellent. I have completed about 28 days this year, and I hope that other Members who have not done the scheme will volunteer to do so. Julian, you would be ideal in the Royal Marines—are you the hon. Member for somewhere in the New Forest? You would find the Royal Marines ideal.

I shall finish up, because I could go on for ever, and that would be boring. I should emphasise that there are a lot of civilian workers at the new Defence Aviation Repair Agency. I have raised some worries about that agency, fearing that, in a transition to war, when a civilian work force and all facilities must be available for a 100 per cent. effort, the privatising change that has happened will damage the smooth running of the past. As the hon. Member for Ludlow will know, when the whistle sounds and the balloon goes up, Government workers give 100 per cent. to get ships and aircraft ready.

Privatised companies are something else. They have contracts, and their staff may have difficulties. I worked in the Fleetlands division of DARA, and I know that some of its workers go to Germany on contract for £500 a day over the weekends to make up for their low wages. That means that they are not available for overtime. If there were a call suddenly to expand work from day working to overtime working, as happened with the Falklands, the workers will not be available. They will be in Germany, or elsewhere abroad. For many people, there is no loyalty, only money. That could raise problems in the run-up to war.

I want to finish on the Fleet Maintenance Repair Organisation at Portsmouth dockyard. I have received a letter, and no doubt the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South has received a copy of it. Vice-Admiral Blackham, a customer of Fleet Support Ltd., says that there have been problems and delays with a few ships. The problem is not the efficiency of the workers, however, and it cannot be solved by bringing in an axe to sharpen them up. The problem is with management efficiency. All the failings described are about planning, not having enough people in the right place at the right time and material losses. All that relates to what Peter Mandelson, the director of the Board of Trade, has said—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has several times overlooked the fact that we ought not to address any Member, or comment on any Member, except by use of their constituency names.

Mr. Rapson

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I put my mistakes down to my ignorance. Whoever it was I mentioned previously did say that industry should sharpen up. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool.

Mr. Doug Henderson

Right hon. Friend.

Mr. Rapson

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who is President of the Board of Trade.

The point is the efficiency of industry, which is important in a naval base.

Mr. Hancock

The hon. Member raises an important point about the future of FSL and its work force. If they cannot get on board ships to carry out work, it is because there is a problem with forward planning and with co-operation between senior staff at the MoD and senior management at FSL. The only people who ever pay the price for incompetence and bungling by management are the work force. It is they who pay the ultimate price of losing their jobs, and I hope that the Minister will take seriously the problems that the workers face at Portsmouth Dockyard. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North has said time and time again—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going on too long.

Mr. Rapson

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South makes his point well. It is the workers who bear the brunt.

I want to get one final niggle out of my system after waiting for many years to come here. There are among the Government workers in the support services mobile and non-mobile people, but there is something strange about it. The industrial work force are not mobile, but the non-industrial staff invariably are mobile. That means one thing. On the one hand, a worker works for the establishment and if there is a problem, he will be made redundant and will be finished; on the other, a mobile person is not made redundant, but is moved to another job. That is distinctly unfair. There should be equality for mobile and non-mobile workers, just as for everyone else. I shall shut up there, although 1 could go on for ever on a purely personal note.

I congratulate our Government on the strategic defence review as it affects the Navy. As I have said, there has been a sigh of relief in the Navy. The Royal Marines support it. I would not worry too much about Merlin. It is a lovely aircraft. With the aircraft carriers being exposed, do not forget the airborne stand-off radar programme, which is bringing new technology to defend our fleet from a long distance. I have great hope in the future.

8.9 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

There have been several heartfelt speeches in the debate so far. Hon. Members on both sides of the House were impressed by the outstanding contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). He referred to the reluctance of people sometimes to put principle before preferment. Anyone who knows the history of the last Parliament could never make that accusation against him.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) whose sincerity and commitment shone through everything he said. He drew on a wealth of experience. He kindly invited me to participate in the armed forces' parliamentary scheme. I am just coming to the end of my time on the RAF contingent of the scheme—which is perhaps why he did not notice me from sea level when I flew over him in a Tornado a few months ago. I am sure that he and the hon. Members for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) would be happy to join me in paying tribute, not only to all the officers and men who make our 21 days with the service of our choice in the course of a year so memorable, but to Sir Neil Thorne, a former Member of this House, whose inspiration it was to set up the scheme. Some eight years ago he recognised the diminishing experience of right hon. and hon. Members of service in the forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) spoke about the Royal Naval Reserve. I was in the RNR for about three years at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s when I held a lowly position on the minesweeper HMS Glasserton. My hon. Friend's point about the mistake of winding up specific units manned by the RNR and placing reservists to fill gaps in existing units is the one that Conservatives are making now about what is being done to the Territorial Army. The mistake made by the previous Government should not be made by the present Government in relation to the TA.

In the strategic defence review and, inevitably, in debates about the services one finds a great deal said and written about equipment, but rather less about strategy. I shall refer to four or five paragraphs of the review because it is worth putting extracts on the record so that people who listen to the speeches—I know that the numbers may not be large, but they are significant—without necessarily having ploughed through the documents can understand the points that concern us.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence referred to the concern of Conservative Members about the sudden shift—which we hope is not a real one, but is a temporary flight of fancy by the Prime Minister—away from dependence on NATO and towards a position where our defence policy could be interfered with by conflicting structures from the European Union—not even the Western European Union, but the EU itself.

It is worth reminding the House of what the SDR says in paragraph 18: We are a major European state and a leading member of the European Union. Our economic and political future is as part of Europe. Our security is indivisible from that of our European partners and Allies. We therefore have a fundamental interest in the security and stability of the continent as a whole and in the effectiveness of NATO as a collective political and military instrument to underpin these interests. This in turn depends on the transatlantic relationship and the continued engagement in Europe of the United States. To mess around with new defence and security organisations which have amongst their members neutral countries, and do not have among their members the United States of America, is folly in the highest degree.

Chapter 3 is headed "Defence missions and tasks" and sets out eight tasks. The only time that the word "strategic" occurs among the tasks for defence is in the eighth of the eight tasks. At the bottom of the order of priority, one tends to think, it lists "Strategic Attack on NATO". Paragraph 45 states: For the foreseeable future, we envisage that the largest operation we might have to undertake would be involvement in a major regional conflict, whether as part of NATO or a wider international coalition. We need, however, to retain a basis on which we could reconstitute larger capabilities should a strategic threat to NATO ever begin to re-emerge.

Therein lies the recognition that one day we might find ourselves facing a strategic threat. Any restructuring of any of the armed forces—especially the Royal Navy, where there is such a long lead time between the laying down of naval units and their coming into service—must try to bear that possible strategic threat in mind. It is always the case that at any particular time in a nation's history the threat of a conflict breaking out is relatively small. As hon. Members have already remarked, however, when such a conflict breaks out the likelihood that it will not have been predicted is relatively high.

Paragraph 56 refers to the possibility of a strategic attack on NATO. It states: No threat on this scale is in prospect. It would, however, be unwise to conclude that one could never reappear but the conventional forces needed to threaten such an attack would take many years to create. This Mission therefore provides for longer term insurance through a credible nuclear deterrent and the retention of the essential military capabilities on which we could rebuild larger forces over a long period, if circumstances were radically to worsen. That leads us to the key role of the Royal Navy and the strategic deterrent itself—Trident. It is music to my ears to hear the chorus of approval from all parties in support of Trident and the strategic nuclear deterrent. It was not always thus, but I am glad that it is now.

I make one little appeal in connection with Trident to the Minister in my last reference to the contents of the SDR. Paragraph 67 states: We will have only one submarine on patrol at a time, carrying a reduced load of 48 warheads. This compares with the previous government's announced ceiling of 96. With respect, that is not to compare like with like.

In July I tabled a series of written questions asking about the number of warheads which had been typically deployed on the Trident system since it came into service in mid-1994 under the Conservative Government. The Government were forthcoming and explained that the figure of 48 that is now being deployed is the exact number of warheads on the Trident submarines and that the typical number of warheads deployed on Trident submarines from the moment of their inception in service was 60. Sometimes it was slightly fewer, sometimes it may have been a little more, but it was never more than 65. We are talking about a reduction of about 20 per cent. in the number of warheads deployed on Trident. As the Government have been honest and open enough to say what the figures are and what they were, they should stop comparing the current actual figure with the ceiling under the previous Government and compare it with the actual figure under the previous Government.

We have heard that there has been a shift from concentration on blue water or open ocean operations to power projection. That means that the Navy goes looking for trouble, sorts it out and operates near the littoral of a country where trouble had arisen. I am concerned about the danger of losing techniques that we must at all costs preserve, in the event of the re-emergence of the unlikely but possible long-term strategic threat that the review recognises. Those capabilities must not be abandoned.

Although I am not on the Royal Navy part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had a unique experience on 14 May when I went to sea with the third of our Trident submarines, HMS Vigilant. We were operating in the Scottish exercise area shortly before she went into permanent service. It was a remarkable experience and particularly poignant for me because of my involvement in the 1980s in the campaign to bring Trident to fruition.

When we hear about £40 plastic buckets and other expenses that could be trimmed, it strikes us as a little inappropriate that the Navy feels that it can no longer afford to spend money on presenting plaques with crests of warships to visiting naval figures or host naval ports, as has traditionally been done. I am sure that the House will approve of the fact that I can vouch personally for the presentation of a plaque from the House of Commons to the officers and crew of HMS Vigilant, which is even now out on patrol protecting these shores. It is fascinating to consider that its submerged displacement is 16,000 tonnes, rather more than that of any of the cruisers that took part in the famous battle of the River Plate, and heavier even than the Graf Spee, the pocket battleship sunk in that conflict.

We know the balance sheet for the Navy in the SDR. We know about the cut from 35 to 32 frigates and destroyers, and the loss of two attack submarines—a prospect which was widely trailed and was criticised in a letter in The Times from Sir Patrick Duffy, a former Labour Navy Minister. We know that the number of mine counter-measures vessels will go from 19 to 22, and not the planned 25.

During his evidence to the Defence Select Committee on 20 July, the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, was asked what he disliked about the review. He replied: if I lose platforms, whether they are destroyers and frigates or nuclear submarines or helicopters, then I am less than happy. I have to look at it, along with the other chiefs, in defence in the round. If one looks at the package and providing that package is delivered, then I was content to accept reductions in certain areas. That was, of course, code for the two great aircraft carriers that are somewhere over the horizon. That point was made explicit by his successor as First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, on 27 October, when he told some of us in the all-party defence study group that the best news in the review was the "unequivocal commitment" to two large carriers.

It was said earlier that what goes around, comes around. I too can remember when the late Christopher Mayhew, a man to whom the country owes a great debt for the many battles that he fought in both war and peace to defend this country, resigned as Labour's Navy Minister because of the decision to scrap aircraft carriers when we were considering our commitments east of Suez. It is strange to think that the wheel has gone full circle with the likelihood of two large carriers being built.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) mentioned how cunningly the Navy chiefs managed to keep the concept of the aircraft carrier alive by creating the through-deck cruiser, which miraculously metamorphosed into an aircraft carrier after a few years in service. Perhaps if the Labour party had decided to scrap our ballistic missile submarines, the Admiralty would have built them anyway and classified them as mobile nuclear power stations. We cannot always rely on such ingenuity to keep the potential and capabilities of the Royal Navy alive when politicians are pulling the rug from underneath the feet of the Admiralty. The Royal Navy is willing to live with the package if the whole package comes to fruition. It will be a long time before we know whether the new carriers will materialise. We must hope that the Government mean to do what they say in respect of them.

I conclude on a more personal note. I was thinking of the tribute that we paid yesterday to those who died in the first and second world wars and in other wars this century. I want to pay tribute to someone whom I regard as representative of the generation that did so much to ensure our freedoms, a constituent of mine, David Balme. As a Sub-Lieutenant aged 20 on HMS Bulldog, when it had trapped the German U-boat U110—which could have blown up or sunk at any second—he led a boarding party onto the submarine and seized from it the Enigma codes, precipitating one of the turning points in the intelligence battle of the Atlantic. While yesterday we were remembering those who did not survive the tremendous battles, it is appropriate to pay tribute, in the context of a Royal Navy debate, to people like David Balme, and the young men who fought with him and survived, who by heroic measures—he was awarded the distinguished service cross—helped keep the sea lanes open and win the battle of the Atlantic, and helped us to survive as a free and democratic country.

8.27 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

This is also a poignant moment for me. I served in the Royal Marines and this is the first Royal Navy debate in which I have spoken. I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson), who said that he was going to Nicaragua and Honduras to join the Royal Marines on humanitarian operations. They will make him most welcome. It is marvellous that so many hon. Members take part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which gives them the opportunity to gauge our armed forces and understand how excellent they are. We are fortunate in that regard.

Our country has for centuries relied on the Royal Navy as the cornerstone of its defence. Our maritime power, and its latent or actual projection, has served us well, not only in defending our country but in protecting our overseas interests and the interests of our allies.

The success of our armed forces has always been founded on the high quality of the individuals who serve in them, their foresight and their ability to evolve and change. We have reverted recently to an emphasis on joint expeditionary operations. The strategic defence review rightly, in my opinion and that of many hon. Members, identifies joint expeditionary operations capability as being at the core of our defence policy. The SDR recommends at least one and, if need be, two joint rapid reaction forces to provide expeditionary capability.

In his opening speech, the Minister pointed out that we already had in our amphibious fleet and in 3 Commando Brigade an experienced and excellent joint expeditionary force. Of course, he is right. Expeditionary and amphibious warfare demands highly trained and highly committed sailors, Royal Marines, soldiers and airmen who are both versatile and flexible. Not only must they be capable of serving in all theatres of operations around the world but they must be able to serve in a variety of operations from humanitarian through low-level and regional operations to major conflicts.

Ministers and Members of the House should never underestimate that most difficult of skills at the heart of expeditionary operations, in which the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines lead the world. That skill is the headquarters command and control co-ordination and logistic capability. Joint expeditionary operations require immense experience, expertise and skill to co-ordinate the embarkation of troops, ship them to their destination and land them with their weapons, supporting arms and supplies. These are truly joint or combined operations, in which our armed forces excel. For such operations to be feasible, we must have the escort ships and amphibious ships to conduct them.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene in his opening speech. I made it clear to him that I welcomed the fact that Fearless and Intrepid were to be replaced by two new assault ships, as we used to call them. They are now called landing platform docks or LPDs. The House will be aware that the very minimum that we require is two ships. After all, they are command and communications ships with heavy landing craft and heavy lift capability. They are not helicopter landing ships like HMS Ocean. They do not have a large flightdeck that can be used to deploy troops in any strength. I need hardly explain that, without a helicopter capability, our expeditionary policy is meaningless. Helicopters and helicopter capability have been at the core of all military operations that we have conducted since 1945. They are indispensable.

I pointed out to the Minister in an intervention that our one helicopter landing ship, Ocean, is now, during its trials, rightly being used for humanitarian operations in Nicaragua and Honduras. I should also point out to the Minister that, with refits and other essential repairs, Ocean will be deployable for only about six months in each year. What are we going to do while we have no helicopter landing ship at sea? The Minister replied to my intervention that the Government proposed to commission two new aircraft carriers. That was a wholly inadequate response. There is no certainty that those ships will be built and, in any event, they are fixed-wing carriers, not helicopter assault ships.

There is a large measure of cross-party agreement that expeditionary capability should be at the core of our defence strategy. We need at least one further helicopter landing ship to fulfil that role.

8.33 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

This has been, as ever, a good debate. I agree with those who say that it should be more widely read—perhaps not in total, but certainly in abridged form—by a wider audience in the Royal Navy and among naval families.

I begin with some comments on the speech by the Minister for the Armed Forces. I am bound to say that the old story that the Government will not take any lessons from us about cuts in defence is wearing a bit thin. The trouble is that we did the dirty work after the cold war, and a painful business it was, but we resisted the taunts for more and more cuts from the Labour party. The cuts that were made are no excuse for cutting now what we are told is a sustainable budget, at a time of no loss of commitments. Indeed, new commitments are arising all the time.

However, I agree with the Minister about the significance of the shipbuilding industry in this country—especially when it comes to HMS Vengeance, which I was privileged to visit up at Barrow. What a very remarkable boat that is and what a very remarkable work force have built her. It is a matter of great pride for them and for our nation that we can build such a fine submarine.

If anyone wants to understand what projection of power means, I suggest arranging to go on a sea day with the Royal Navy, as I did. I am grateful to the captain of HMS Invincible for the invitation and for a memorable day. To be within a few feet of Harriers taking off is possibly one of the most exciting experiences anyone can have. To be out there in the English channel with destroyers, frigates, minesweepers, survey ships, Harriers, Chinooks, Nimrods and other aircraft is a most remarkable experience. I shall never forget the clearly terrified reaction of the recreational sailors on their way across the channel as they saw this armada approaching. Nor will I forget the strangled cries for assistance and directions from the captain of a large container ship, who suddenly realised that he needed about 20 miles to turn around. Where was he to go? It was a remarkable experience and we are proud of the Navy.

We also have two amphibious assault ships in build at Barrow. I have seen them. Very remarkable construction technology is being used there. They of course are in addition to HMS Ocean. I was delighted that the Minister told us about plans for an association for Royal Navy and Royal Marine families. That is a great step forward which must be warmly welcomed by us all. I hope that it will sit comfortably alongside Airwaves, the association of RAF wives once it has its new constitution, and the Army Families Federation.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) talked about the problem of pilots. I have noted his parliamentary questions with great interest. I must also point out that there is a great problem in the Royal Air Force with senior NCOs. Indeed, at one RAF station in eastern England I understand that five senior NCOs a week are leaving that one base. But I digress from the Royal Navy to the RAF.

I must come back to another point that people seem not to have grasped. If the tonnage of an aircraft carrier is doubled, the dimensions are not doubled. Just because we are doubling from 20,000 to 40,000 tonnes, we are not doubling the deck length. Far from it. The deck length will increase by a factor of about 1.3. So Invincible, with a 600ft flight deck, will be succeeded, we hope, by a new carrier with a flightdeck of about 800ft.

Hon. Members on both sides have paid tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which is tremendous. We have all benefited from what those hon. Members have said. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) shared with us his experience as a serving naval officer. He, along with one or two hon. Members who have spoken, has experience that some of us wish we had had the opportunity to pursue. But we have not, and that is our loss.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) highly praised the procurement programme of the previous Government, for which I am grateful to him. He made an important point from his own experience about overstretch. It is very simple: talk to the people involved—the ratings, officers and families. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) made, as ever, an important contribution. He has a large civilian work force in his constituency; he understands it from that point of view. That is how I understand the issues in my own constituency, where there are about 11,500 Ministry of Defence employees: roughly half of them are uniformed and the rest are scientific and industrial civil servants. We should never forget the difficulty they face resulting from contractorisation, which I saw at Boscombe Down and Porton Down almost a decade ago and which continues today.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) shared with us his great expertise in nuclear matters. I am grateful to him for that and for his telling us about the remarkable discovery of the Enigma decoding machinery and about his constituent David Balme. Everyone has contributed enormously fruitfully to the debate.

This is the first Navy debate for probably more than 100 years in which we have been unable to praise a royal yacht. I lament the passing of the royal yacht Britannia, which was as fine and beautiful a ship when she was decommissioned as she was the day she was launched. I regret that the Government have abandoned the previous Government's commitment to find, somehow or other, a worthy successor. Perhaps that is a dream that, one day, might come true.

Rightly, speaker after speaker mentioned the people who make up the Royal Navy—they are, without doubt, the Royal Navy's greatest resource. We all understand that the Royal Navy is a prisoner of demography in matters of recruitment: there is a fairly static pool of young people, which is unlikely to enlarge until after 2010, at which time things might start to improve. However, there are now 30 per cent. fewer 17 and 18-year-olds in the country than there were only 16 years ago. There has also been a substantial change in educational aspirations: in the early 1980s, one in eight young people stayed on for some sort of higher education, but after 18 years of Conservative Government, that ratio has improved to one in three, which has its downside in terms of recruitment to the armed forces.

The Royal Navy has said that a major influence on recruitment is the attitude of parents. For better or worse, the Royal Navy is not seen by some parents as an equal opportunity employer. I congratulate the Royal Navy on the positive way in which the directorate of naval recruiting is tackling that perception through advertisements, its Spotlight campaign and the appearance of the Royal Navy students presentation teams at schools and colleges.

Undoubtedly, the appointment of the ethnic minorities liaison officer has also helped in many areas of the country. I pay tribute to the sea cadets—especially the Salisbury contingent, whose members, even though they are a long way from the sea, make a remarkable contribution—they are an important source of recruitment for the Royal Navy. Incidentally, I am aware that there is a real problem of people signing up for the Royal Navy and simply failing to turn up on the day—but no doubt that problem will be addressed.

One of the key proposals by senior officers is to reduce the amount of time sailors spend at sea. Four years ago, the Royal Navy announced that it would reduce days at sea, and the aim of the policy was to guarantee that people would not normally spend more than six days at sea at a time. Of course, on operational deployments, some personnel spend eight or nine months away from home, which can have a damaging effect if they are prevented from taking shore-side courses to develop their careers. The strategic defence review carried a strong personnel message for the Royal Navy, but there is little prospect of any change in tasking. Fewer ships but the same number of tasks put even greater strains on personnel. There appears to be a gap between the aspirations of senior officers and the actuality of life at sea. There are not only fewer ships, but fewer shore jobs. I spoke to one young officer who told me that, in one and half years, he has been ashore for only four weeks.

The question of women at sea has been raised. I think that most Royal Navy personnel know that the decision cannot now be reversed, however much many of my hon. Friends might regret that. A young officer told me that he reckoned that, in 10 years' time, the Navy would not remember not having women at sea. The problem, he said, looking straight at me, lay largely with older people. It was well understood where the boundaries of discipline lay, he said, and it was accepted that there should not be liaisons between officers and ratings, for good disciplinary reasons. However, he also said that the Royal Navy should not be expected to reflect society at large—life could be tough at sea. For some people—male and female—it was tough that earrings are banned.

The young officer went on to say that drugs testing is accepted; however, I received a heartfelt plea that alcohol should not be banned from Her Majesty's ships. The abolition of the rum ration was one thing, but to ban a couple of cans of beer at the end of a shift would not be welcome—nor, I believe, would it be sensible. The United States navy banned alcohol 40 years ago, but I leave it to others to judge whether their social problems have been worse as a result.

The single goal of personnel policy must surely be combat readiness, and to achieve that implies sufficient manning levels. Parents' perceptions and attitudes are clearly important, but so are the perceptions of young people considering the Royal Navy as a career. That is why I welcome and support the key messages of the tri-service equal opportunities conference, which was launched by General Sir Colin Powell—if I may call an honorary knight "sir"—of the United States last Tuesday. Many people are suspicious of moves toward equality of opportunity in the forces. Some people even think that women have no place at all in the forces. I should not dream of arguing that line with my esteemed mother-in-law, who served as a Wren throughout the second world war.

Let me quote one of the key messages that we heard at that conference on Tuesday: Our Equal Opportunities are not about political correctness. Rather they are about treating everyone fairly, with dignity and respect. Such treatment, regardless of race, sex and background, enhances team cohesion and underpins the essential characteristics of military ethos. To argue otherwise fails to recognise the inclusive nature of equal opportunities which has a value for everyone; it does not favour minorities at the expense of the majority. The Royal Navy decided years ago that it needed women in the service, because of their particular qualities and because, with recruitment extremely competitive, it did not seem sensible to exclude half the human race. As Colin Powell so memorably put it on Tuesday, You're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem. Let us get to grips with the reality of the recruitment problems facing the Royal Navy.

I now turn to a very different practical problem, which is the question of the Royal Navy and Gibraltar. I could spend a lot of time talking about NATO and Gibraltar, but I shall not; that can wait for another occasion. I have known Gibraltar a long time and I recognise the contribution it has made to Britain, to our relations with the rest of the world and to the life of the Navy. I tabled some questions to find out how many submarines of the Royal Navy and the US navy had docked at the Z-berth at Gibraltar. The answer revealed that the number is quite large, which shows that it is an important strategic point both to our Navy and to the American navy.

Even more impressive is the number of Royal Navy ships visiting Gibraltar. In the first ten months of this year, 20 Royal Navy ships and eight Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships paid 48 visits to Gibraltar. That is quite a busy time, although it is not as busy as in the old days of the Royal Navy. The problem of the dockyards and employment there remains a real one for the Government of Gibraltar and for the Ministry of Defence, because it places some burden on their budgets.

There are problems in Gibraltar. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), asked the Foreign Secretary about the resources available to the governor of Gibraltar to protect the integrity of British territorial waters around Gibraltar against the incursions of Spanish fishing boats and armed militia. The reply of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), stated: We have assured the Governor that HMG will provide whatever support is necessary to protect the integrity of British territorial waters around Gibraltar."— [Official Report, 2 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 413.] In a letter to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, dated 5 November, the right hon. Lady stated: In addition, we have made it clear that Spanish military or law enforcement vessels entering British waters, unless exercising a right of innocent passage in accordance with international law or when invited to co-operate with the Gibraltar authorities, are infringing British sovereignty and will be asked to leave. HMG will continue to safeguard the sovereignty, control and jurisdiction of British waters. That was good news; however, in a letter dated 9 November, the Chief Minister had to write back to the Minister of State, saying: In this respect you will by now be aware of the events of the night of 5th November when three such Spanish vessels, a civil guard boat, a customs boat and a fisheries protection vessel, remained defiantly in British waters just outside Gibraltar harbour for nearly two hours despite repeated requests from the Royal Navy and the Royal Gibraltar Police that they should leave. Indeed one Spanish boat responded by radio that he would continue 'patrolling the area'. I am sure that you will agree that such incidents are serious and that HMG must prevail upon Spain to desist from such infringements of sovereignty. In addition such incidents understandably and justifiably provoke public opinion in Gibraltar. I am certain that no-one will regard that as helpful or constructive. It certainly does nothing to build confidence. The Government must now begin to respond more positively to that heartfelt plea from the people of Gibraltar, who deserve nothing less.

I turn now to procurement issues. Although Ministers in Whitehall and we in the House are right to debate the billions of pounds that might be spent on aircraft carriers or the progress of the Horizon project—a ship that most people in the Royal Navy will believe in only when they see it steaming over the horizon—we should not forget the frustrations of life at sea. I am impressed to find that the need for strong logistic trails is understood throughout the Royal Navy. Can Ministers ensure, however, that operational requirements do not suffer from absurdly rigid procurement procedures? I pay tribute to the remarks of the hon. Members for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who also mentioned that point.

I shall give the House two examples. Correct footwear is essential on board ship. Indeed, the entire procurement process is dedicated to making sure that the right footwear is available on a heaving, slippery deck at the right moment. If those boots, costing a few pounds, are not available because of a bureaucratic hitch somewhere along the chain of supply, not only do the millions of pounds spent on aircraft or missiles become irrelevant, but accidents will happen to expensively trained personnel.

There is another point, similar to an earlier point about a black plastic bucket. I was told that during the summer a flight deck officer's headset volume control broke. It was just a simple potentiometer. After six months the headset was still unserviceable. Someone slipped ashore and bought a new control knob for £1.49 from the local shop. The headset was mended and put back in service. The Royal Navy was back in business and sailed to sea. The order was cancelled and a message came back down the supply chain that the officer would have had to wait only another few weeks and he could have had the part for "free" at a cost of only £10 to the taxpayer. That is a tiny example, but it reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South and others.

Mr. Spellar

We are doing something about that.

Mr. Key

I am delighted to hear that the Under-Secretary is doing something. I understand that, like me, he does all the hard work in the Department. I know that he is a man for detail. I know that the Secretary of State swans around the world telling people what Britain is up to. I know that the Minister for the Armed Forces makes the brave, bold visits to the armed forces around the world and I know that the Under-Secretary is sitting there doing all the paperwork, reading the cases and paying attention to detail, just as I did in other Departments.

Dr. Julian Lewis

He is underpaid.

Mr. Key

My hon. Friend is right.

We all welcome the progress that the Government are making on improving defence medical services and the Defence Secondary Care Agency. The Secretary of State announced measures on 2 November. We shall monitor progress closely, particularly the procurement of a 200-bed primary casualty receiving ship, with a second one available on contract at longer notice if required. Will the Minister clarify now, or later by letter, whether that is in addition to the manning of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus as a primary casualty receiving ship? Will we have three such ships in future? Clearly there will be manning problems. We know that the royal naval medical service already has difficulties manning the RFA Argus because of shortages of surgeons, anaesthetists, operating theatre assistants and some specialist nurses.

Echoing other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who regrets his absence tonight, I wonder whether Ministers could give us any clues about their conclusions on the future of the royal naval hospital Haslar at Gosport. I visited that institution with the Select Committee on Defence when it produced its report in the previous Parliament. The hospital is important not only for all three services but for the local community.

We are all proud of the work that the Royal Navy carries out beyond visual range. Much of that is routine patrolling on and under the surface of the sea, and we are proud when the men and women of the Royal Navy and its pilots perform acts of courage, plucking people out of the sea. We are proud of the senior service, when it assists with humanitarian disaster relief, such as in its work in central America at present. We are grateful, too, that the Navy is out on the high seas stopping the flow of illegal drugs.

I was therefore delighted to read on the US Information Agency website in Washington on 14 July that the US and the UK had signed an agreement concerning maritime and aerial operations to suppress illicit trafficking by sea in waters of the Caribbean and Bermuda. The US press release said: The reciprocal six-part pact formalizes and regulates an existing `ship-rider' program of the two countries, under which U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement officials are permitted to ride on British naval vessels in the Caribbean, and their U.K. counterparts ride U.S. ships. The agreement also provides for pursuit of suspect U.S. and U.K. vessels and aircraft into territorial waters, the boarding of suspect vessels in international waters, and the overflight of territorial airspace to track suspect vessels and aircraft, among other provisions. Why was there no announcement of that in the United Kingdom? There was no statement or even so much as a written answer in the House. How very unlike Labour's Millbank Tower headquarters to miss such a good news story. There was no press notice from the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; there was a deafening silence on this side of the Atlantic. I am beginning to think that there might be some virtue in a freedom of information Act.

On 23 July, I was told that the agreement would be published as a Command Paper, accompanied by an explanatory memorandum, and would be subject to the Ponsonby rule. In September, I was told by the FCO that it would available in the week beginning 19 October. On 10 November, I was told that it would be in the Library of the House by the end of the year. Has something gone wrong? What is happening to drug trafficking in the Caribbean? We look forward to an explanation. Better still, we anticipate an end to the Government's secrecy and the publishing of the treaty.

One of the cornerstones of the strategic defence review was the perceived need to move away from Eurocentric, high-intensity, heavy-armoured concepts of war fighting to the lighter, more flexible concept of power projection and rapid reaction, not forgetting, of course, the importance of peace support and humanitarian operations. It is reasonable to say that the success of the SDR and the Government's handling of defence policy will be determined in no small measure by the decisions that they are due to make on a number of sea systems.

The common new generation frigate, or project Horizon, has been an extended lesson in the disadvantages that can attend European collaboration. The House is entitled to ask how it is intended that Horizon will contribute to power projection. It will be capable of fleet area air defence, but how capable will it be in supporting our forces when landing and ashore?

Will Horizon have the capability and flexibility to launch the BGM-109C Tomahawk land attack cruise missile in support of the Army and Royal Marines, bearing it in mind that the recently acquired and welcome capability of the Swiftsure and Trafalgar class SSNs is somewhat limited? Will Horizon be capable of ballistic missile defence against the long-range theatre missile threats that are emerging in the middle east and far east? The protection of British expeditionary forces from such ballistic threats will be an important criterion of success for joint rapid reaction.

There is continuing uncertainty about the future of the Horizon programme and whether it will continue as a collaborative, tri-national programme between the United Kingdom, France and Italy, or whether national solutions will be adopted. Of critical and urgent importance to Matra BAE Dynamics and GEC is the need for an early decision on the principal air-to-air missile system, PAAMS, and the associated Sampson radar, which is manufactured by British Aerospace Defence on the Isle of Wight. The Sampson radar is an extremely exportable piece of equipment.

In order to maintain coherence between the development programmes for the UK PAAMS variant and the development contract to the Franco-Italian variant, for which the contract was let to the French and Italian industries earlier in the year, the way ahead on the industrial structure for Horizon must be urgently clarified within the next few days—and I mean the next few days—thus allowing the new tri-national PAAMS contract to be initialled. If that is not possible, the PAAMS programme should be decoupled from Horizon and allowed to proceed. If the PAAMS programme launch suffers further delays, I fear that the current industrial agreements on PAAMS will start to unravel, which would be to no one's advantage.

There is also the matter of the Government's continuing paralysis on the question of the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. I think that it is deplorable. It has an effect not just on the DERA work force of 12,500 people but on the whole British defence industry. It is a serious matter and a sign of incompetence. The SDR contained a sentence or two on DERA, and then kicked it into touch. The White Paper on the defence diversification agency contained a sentence or two about DERA, and kicked it into touch as well. Will Ministers now confirm that they have called in yet more consultants to produce a report in six months' time, with a view to announcing a ministerial decision in July 1999?

The Royal Navy needs to maximise the pull-through from applied research at DERA and exploit commercial standards and private sector developments in information technology, systems automation and marine engineering. Much of DERA's work affects the Royal Navy—for example, the development of composite structural radar absorbent material for warships, the integrated mast technology programme and research into blast-resistant structures. The trimaran demonstrator project, which uses the large-scale trials ship, RV Triton, is very important. The combat system 1 technology demonstrator programme uses commercial off-the-shelf IT for the next generation combat systems planned for the future aircraft carriers, for the future surface combatant and for the future attack submarine.

DERA is an extremely important partner in defence sales overseas. There was much crowing in the press this morning over the fact that the Foreign Secretary has denied, at least thrice, the existence of the Labour Government's ethical foreign policy. I shall not join in that crowing. It is worse than incompetent if the Government did not mean what they said about an ethical foreign policy. If the Foreign Secretary knew that everyone except him was off message, why did it take 18 months for him to come clean?

Currently at risk is a substantial investment by DERA and many excellent British companies in the international naval exhibition at Val Paraiso, Chile, at the end of the month. Will HMS Sutherland still attend that exhibition? Will the Minister for the Armed Forces honour his commitment to attend that exhibition in support of British naval excellence? Thousands of British workers in the defence industries need to know the answer.

Whatever our differences with the Government, they pale into insignificance as we unite to thank the men and women of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and all the civilian support staff in whom we take great pride. We think of them working in central America amongst the utter devastation and the broken spirits in those countries. The professionalism, compassion and pride of the Royal Navy will bring hope and comfort to those people.

We think also of the Royal Navy preparing for the rigours and dangers of a new challenge in the middle east. We recall with gratitude the naval families and friends who keep the home fires burning. Above all, we are grateful for our island's maritime heritage and maritime future—safe in the hands of the Royal Navy.

9.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)

I think that all hon. Members would agree that this has been a good-natured and interesting debate. Probably the most interesting contribution came from the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who tried to sell the proposition that it was not Mrs. Thatcher's withdrawal of our naval presence from the Falklands—contrary to the policy pursued by the Callaghan Government—but the activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that incited President Galtieri. I suspect that that illusion is shared only by the hon. Gentleman and Bruce Kent. Therefore, I think that it is probably not worthy of the hon. Gentleman's usually serious consideration.

In the course of the debate, I noted with interest the successive contributions by three hon. Members with beards—which is probably an appropriate tribute to the Royal Navy. One of the three, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), spoke effectively about his involvement with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and the hon. Member for New Forest, East. It always bears repeating that the armed forces parliamentary scheme is of enormous value to hon. Members—particularly in view of the decline in the number of Members of Parliament who have served in the armed forces. However, the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) was incorrect: one member of the defence team, Lord Gilbert, served in the armed forces. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman stands corrected.

Given that general decline, it is very desirable for hon. Members to gain experience of the forces. The scheme is also valuable for the forces, who gain a better understanding of the political process and may express their views to hon. Members and have those views conveyed in debates on the Floor of the House or in Committees. We shall shortly welcome new members to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I urge hon. Members who have taken part in the scheme to encourage others to participate. They will find it worth while and an aid to better government.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said, the strategic defence review put people first. That means, among other things, giving our service men and women the equipment that they deserve—which means the best. The Royal Navy will have the best, now and in future.

From fishery protection vessels, through destroyers, frigates and attack submarines, to the Invincible class aircraft carriers and the strategic deterrent, the Royal Navy possesses a formidable spectrum of capabilities. It is no exaggeration to say that it remains at the forefront of the world's navies. That is acknowledged throughout the world.

Maintaining the fleet of today is a massive undertaking, but one that must enjoy a high priority as our service men and women put their lives on the line on the high seas. It is one thing to ensure the fighting effectiveness of today's Navy but another to take the fleet toward the future: toward the next generation of platform and systems, and toward meeting the challenges of the next century. We cannot afford to give the Navy anything but the most modern equipment.

For that reason, we decided in the SDR to replace our current aircraft carriers with two larger, more capable vessels. We are thinking of carriers of about 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes, capable of deploying up to 50 aircraft apiece. Those ships will give us the capacity to project power, to emphasise our resolve in crisis situations and to make a real difference in influencing events ashore.

Regrettably, once again I must lay the canard about what we are doing with carriers. Interestingly—as I think the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) mentioned—a similar process of examining options for a major ship purchase occurred under the previous Administration, in the case of the landing platform dock replacement. Before the procurement of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark was proceeded with, the do-minimum option of a life extension for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid was examined. That enables us to show that the option chosen was the best value for money for the taxpayer. Unfortunately, having received the answer about our commitment, Opposition Members keep pressing us on that issue, which might cause anxiety among our colleagues in the Royal Navy.

Mr. Key

I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman to lay that canard to rest. The problem is that, as I believe that he will find if he checks, the new inquiries and studies were not carried out after the firm commitment had been given to the House that the project would go ahead. The hon. Gentleman has not answered the question. What will happen if those studies come up with the answer that we do not need the two new aircraft carriers after all? if the hon. Gentleman would give us answers, we might make a lot of progress.

Mr. Spellar

I think that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that, with the new generation of carrier-borne aircraft and with the new mission, obviously the project is mission driven and changes will be needed. That is why we went for the two aircraft carriers. We had made that commitment clear. Work in progress is moving along. Unfortunately—possibly to score political points—Opposition Members continue to press us on the subject. I assure them that we are dealing with the matter. They should not be diverted into questioning an evaluation which, in the case of a fairly unique process and a fairly unique product, gives us benchmark figures that enable us to satisfy ourselves on how we are proceeding and the bids that we are receiving and—also very important—to satisfy the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and other Government Departments.

Mr. Hancock

There is an even greater similarity between what the present Government are going to do with the carriers and what the Conservatives did during the building of HMS Ocean. Once the decision was made to build HMS Ocean, it was re-evaluated and the vessel was built to a lower specification than the military one, presumably on the basis of some exercise that was carried out on the cost of building HMS Ocean to a military specification.

Mr. Spellar

I stand not corrected, but augmented by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Sayeed

My understanding of the landing platform dock decision was that the entry in the contracts journal took place well before a decision was made to build two new LPDs, whereas, in the case of the carriers, the decision to build two new carriers was announced by the Government, and only after that was the entry made in the contracts journal. Is that correct?

Mr. Spellar

There is a commitment to build two new carriers, and the approximate size is known, but we do not have the final specifications. We need that information to make a proper evaluation, as was rightly said by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire should be assured of our bona fides and of our firm commitment to a key part of the strategic defence review. We recognise the strategic importance of the new role for our forces, in particular the Royal Navy, and the Navy's part in joint operations.

Across the piece, the Royal Navy is being modernised. The Vanguard class Trident missile submarine programme took another major step forward this year with the roll-out and naming of HMS Vengeance, the fourth and final vessel in the class. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) when he spoke of his visit to Barrow. One of the elements missing from the debate tonight was a speech by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) who now has departmental responsibility, but who has battled strongly over the past few years on behalf of his constituents and those who work in the shipyards at Barrow.

The final three type 23 frigates enter service from the year 2000. We look to the collaborative common new generation frigate programme to provide the successor to the Navy's type 42 air defence destroyers. I shall return to that.

Three Astute class submarines are on contract, and will enter service early next century, with two more planned. All Trafalgar and Astute class boats will now have the Tomahawk land attack capability.

As was mentioned earlier, the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean—the largest vessel in the Royal Navy—formally enters service next year. The new assault ships, Albion and Bulwark, will join her in the amphibious role early next century. The two roll on/roll off ferries currently in service will be joined by a further four—a major enhancement of our strategic lift capacity. The first Merlin anti-submarine helicopters enter service next month.

The SDR reaffirmed the order for two new auxiliary oilers, RFAs Wave Knight and Wave Ruler. I pay tribute to the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the merchant marine. I take the points that were raised today, which I know are particularly understood by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Getting the best equipment for the Navy, as I said at the outset, is about putting people first, but of course our service men and women need more than first-rate equipment. They need to know that we have their well-being uppermost in our minds. Their commitment is possible only with our commitment.

That extends to our reserve forces. I thought it a little churlish that, in a debate on the Royal Navy, one or two Opposition Members yet again entered into the argument about the Territorial Army, without at least balancing their comments by pointing out that there is a 10 per cent. increase in the Royal Naval Reserve and in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. We are right to pay tribute to the work that they undertake. We recognise that and see an increasing role for them and also for the Sea Cadets, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury and also by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), who informed me that he had to return to Northern Ireland for a meeting. The hon. Member for East Antrim rightly drew attention to the potential for recruitment.

We do not regard the sea and other cadets simply as a recruitment source. They have a valuable role in their own right and they play a significant role in the community. Equally, we do not ignore the fact that some 25 per cent. of recruits into the forces come from those who have been in the cadets and, furthermore, their retention rate is also much higher than that for other recruits. By no means do we expect them all to go into the forces, nor would we want any such perceived obligation, but we recognise that they are a valuable recruitment source. Therefore, they are not just good value for the country but for the armed forces. That is why we shall be putting additional resources into the cadets in the forthcoming years.

As I have said, the contribution of the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Marine Reserve was clearly confirmed by the outcome of the strategic defence review. The Royal Naval Reserve will benefit not only from an increase in manpower but from a 40 per cent. increase in funding for its training of reservists. The Royal Marine Reserve has been given a 66 per cent. increase in recruit training funding.

The personal dimension extends to the Navy's contribution to defence diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Making contact with armed forces which, only a decade ago, stood on the other side of the iron curtain draws people together. It builds trust and confidence and maps out a way ahead for co-operation and conciliation in the new century.

The Royal Navy is at the forefront of that process. It leads in a number of initiatives which will build and maintain trust with eastern European navies and which will assist in the development of democratically accountable forces.

There has justifiably been much in the press recently—it has been mentioned in the debate—about the Royal Navy's contribution to humanitarian relief. HMS Sheffield provided assistance to communities on the Honduran islands. Her Lynx helicopter inserted relief teams from the ship's company to distribute food and medical supplies and to provide first aid. Working parties also cleared damaged power cables and restored electrical power and drinking water supplies. It is just what we would expect of the Royal Navy, but it is also a job extremely well done and enormously appreciated in the area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South talked about the role of the Fleet Maintenance Repair Organisation and I think that both also mentioned Fleetlands. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North rightly mentioned the considerable role of civilian employees and contractors who are enormously effective in providing the back-up for our services.

After some initial difficulties, FMRO is starting to work well. There is greater co-operation and interaction between the management and the work force. Fleetlands, which is now part of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, of whose owners' advisory board I am chairman, has also made some exciting developments which will be of benefit to the four sites that comprise that agency.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South asked about staff recruitment and retention and the problems of overstretch, as did the hon. Member for Salisbury. Most of the personnel released by changes resulting from the strategic defence review will be redeployed across the service, precisely to deal with the problems of the gapping of billets, the pressures which result from that and the danger of a cycle of overstretch. On current trends, we hope to have removed manning shortages by 2002. That will be good for the Navy and for the sailors.

The hon. Members for Salisbury and for Portsmouth, South talked about the problem of pilots, which faces armed forces throughout the world, whether in the United States, Singapore or Finland. In recent discussions, all those countries have drawn attention to that problem. That is partly because of an upsurge in hiring by airlines and partly because pilots feel that they must take that opportunity while it exists, given the cyclical nature of the civil aviation industry. Like many other countries, we are involved in discussions with airlines and are looking at what lessons we can learn from each other and what we can do about retention.

However, the airlines must take some responsibility because they are taking on expensively trained personnel whom they would otherwise have to train. A programme in which pilots can move across to airlines at an appropriate pace would be advantageous to us, to airlines if they would take a slightly longer perspective, and to pilots, who could spend a few more years carrying out the interesting and fulfilling role of a fast jet pilot, knowing that they could then move into the civilian sphere. Thus, we are aware of the problem and are taking measures to resolve it in co-operation with other air forces and navies around the world.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South discussed nuclear workers and test veterans. I dealt with nuclear workers in an intervention. I believe that I have already sent the hon. Gentleman a report on nuclear test veterans, which he can look at again in the Library. The eminently respected Sir Richard Doll of the National Radiological Protection Board undertook not one but two studies on that subject and found no greater incidence of radiation-related cancers among those involved in nuclear tests than among a similar population that was not involved. Had a case been found, of course we would have responded, but the scientific facts do not back that up, whatever the assertions made.

Mr. Hancock

This nation must have a moral obligation to compensate a group of men who were subjected to being very close to nuclear explosions, and whose health has subsequently suffered—indeed, many have died from the illnesses caused. The tragedy for them and their families should be recognised. If it can be proven that their illnesses are the direct result of their closeness to those explosions and the subsequent clean-up operations, we have a moral obligation to compensate them sooner rather than later.

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is right, but he has defined the problem. He said, "if it can be proven".

The best scientific advice from the top epidemiologist in the world, Sir Richard Doll, does not lead to that conclusion. We must take that on board and bluntly accept that a third of this country's population will contract cancer during the normal course of their lives. It is the recorded cause of death for about a quarter of the population, so those who were at nuclear tests and contracted cancer might have done so anyway. Compensation must be based on scientific evidence.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and the hon. Member for Salisbury raised some worthwhile points on smart procurement and credit cards. We are moving on to Government credit cards and considering taking nearly all the commodity products out of the standard procurement process, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire described. We fully understand that local purchasing can be based on Government credit cards and on the appropriate checks undertaken through computer systems to prevent most types of fraud. It is not revolutionary; indeed, a number of other armed services around the world have already done that.

We also recognise the considerable savings that can be achieved on individual line items and the much greater speed with which people get the parts. We fully understand that and we are already making some use of that way of operating. We shall be evaluating it and then considering how far it can roll out—it is important, to reform and streamline our procurement processes.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire about computer systems and Upkeep. The dilemma that is always faced—not only by us, but by any commercial organisation—is, to what extent should we aim for the ultimate and best system, and to what extent should we make what we have work along the way? Sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good in such exercises, but that point is understood by the new Chief of Defence Logistics, who is bringing together the logistics organisations of all three services.

A first-class officer, General Sir Sam Cowan, has been appointed to that post. The fact that we have made such an appointment, and General Cowan is undertaking such work, shows that we are seized of the problems and of the great advantages—not only in costs, but in enhanced operational effectiveness—that will come through that.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) made a number of points. He asked about the year 2000 problem, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire.

Mr. Sayeed

indicated dissent.

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman did not, so we shall get back to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon.

If he wishes, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon could have a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Gilbert, who can speak at considerable length and with considerable authority on the subject. He is seized of it, and has made sure that everyone in earshot and in sight is seized of it. My noble Friend is driving the process through in the Department and is evaluating our systems, especially our critical systems. We are making considerable progress, and we must also press the message overseas to ensure that not only ourselves, but many of our allies, are apprised of the subject to a similar extent. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon also raised the question of HMS Spartan, which is to be retained until 2006 and will be the second strategic submarine nuclear to pay off in the gradual reduction from 12 to 10, in line with the reduction under the SDR. I am advised that, for HMS Spartan to remain operationally effective until 2006, it will need essential refuelling and maintenance work. Its refit will therefore be constrained to the minimum necessary work for it to carry out its operational role and will cost less than originally planned.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon asked about the Kosovo evacuation plans. I am advised by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces that we have such plans. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned leaks; as I said yesterday, I should have thought that that was a subject on which a period of silence from the Opposition was in order.

The common new generation frigate, which comprises the Horizon ship and the principal anti-air-missile system and will succeed the type 42s early in the next century, was rightly mentioned by a number of hon. Members. We have recently made significant progress with PAAMS and need to make similar advances on the warship programme in the near future.

It would be wrong to pretend that CNGF has been an easy programme, either under this Administration or under our predecessors. Negotiations with industry and with our collaborative partners have been long and difficult, but it is important that every effort be made to make further progress. The type 42s have given excellent service, but cannot go on for ever. We believe that the Navy has sufficient anti-air warfare capability until CNGF enters service, but cheap and highly effective anti-ship missiles are becoming increasingly available on the world market. We must ensure that we continue to have the means to counter them.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) raised the question of landing platform docks and where we were going with those.

Mr. Burnett

I talked about LPDs, but my particular problem was that we have one helicopter carrier—

Mr. Spellar


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time. I think that the Minister has given way to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett).

Mr. Burnett

The Minister should pay particular attention to the fact that we have only one helicopter carrier. If any sense is to be made of the expeditionary policy that is at the core of the SDR, we need at least two.

Mr. Spellar

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the SDR agreed the design and build of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, together with an integrated communications system. That is very much part of the wider reach of joint operations. The in-service dates for those replacements are March 2002 and March 2003.

I think that that will cover a number of the hon. Gentleman's anxieties with regard to increasing our capability.

Mr. Gill

I am interested by the exchange of views between the Minister and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). The Minister seems still to be ignoring the burden of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is talking about the helicopter ships, not the LPDs. There is a distinction. The hon. Gentleman is asking why we do not have two helicopter ships.

Mr. Spellar

One of the problems is that everyone would always like more—another ship, and another. HMS Ocean is the largest vessel in the Royal Navy, and is currently on its trials. We need to get the balance right within the available resources. We need to look, for example, at the projection of power through the two new aircraft carriers. HMS Ocean represents a significant enhancement of our capability, as, indeed, will the new LPDs. There may be requests for additional enhancement further down the track, but I think that we have a pretty versatile, effective and powerful package.

The hon. Member for Salisbury, in what, by describing it as an extremely constructive speech, I hope that I will not damage him too much, referred to the royal yachts. Labour Members were not sure whether that was a spending commitment, and whether it had been cleared with the shadow Chancellor; but the hon. Gentleman made some very useful comments about Tuesday's conference with General Sir Colin Powell, and about the considerable efforts being made by the Navy, under Commander Keith Manchanda, to spread the message about good naval careers among the ethnic community. That excellent work is beginning to produce a response. There is no doubt that the Navy is playing a leading role in the services in putting the message across.

The hon. Member for Salisbury asked about the hospital receiving ship. I am pleased to tell him that a further enhancement of the capabilities will be a major upgrading of the facilities supplied by RFA Argus, to be made during her refit in 2000, and improvements to the facilities provided by RFAs Fort Victoria and Fort George. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Gibraltar. We are well aware of the considerable service provided by Gibraltar and its people to our services, not just in the past. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I have both been to Gibraltar, he in his former role as a Foreign Office Minister. The main difference between us is that he ran up the rock with the Gibraltar regiment, and I certainly did not.

Mr. Gill

May I say something about Gibraltar?

Mr. Spellar

No. I am aware of the time, and the normal blandishments of the Whips, which no one resists in any sense.

We have been around the circuit again on the question of the Western European Union, NATO and the European Union. We have made it clear a number of times that NATO is the cornerstone of our defence policy, that we do not support and will not have a European standing army, and that that is not a role for the European Commission or the European Parliament. Equally, I think that we all recognise—indeed, the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, recognised—that Europe was not seen to be pulling its weight in the defence community. There was a need to ensure a European strategic and defence identity. The problem with the debate that has taken place in the past few weeks is that we have become totally immersed in institutional names and acronyms instead of saying what we are trying to achieve, which will be important not only in enhancing Europe's role but to its image in the United States.

Hon. Members will be well aware that the question whether Europe is pulling its weight is often asked in the United States, especially in Congress. A diverse and disparate Europe that is thought not to be pulling its weight is grist to the mill for the traditional isolationists, who want to retreat from involvement overseas. If we have as our objective an enhanced role for Europe, and I believe that that would command general support in the House, we can move towards deciding how that can best be achieved institutionally, but we have tended, in the past few weeks, to wrap ourselves in acronyms and in degrees in history.

Dr. Julian Lewis

How will our setting up structures that conflict with existing successful structures, and our incorporation into our security arrangements of neutrals that are not members of NATO, help in creating the perception among Americans that Europe is pulling its weight? That strategy will undermine, not enhance, security.

Mr. Spellar

As I said, NATO is the cornerstone of our defence arrangements. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would argue, in the light of what happened in the Balkans, that Europe has been effective in making its presence felt or in taking appropriate decisions. We must move to a broader consensus on Europe and evolve a policy that will reflect it.

No policy is without difficulty, but we need to work out how to move from the position that we are in, which is broadly agreed to be unsatisfactory. The previous Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, agreed to the strategy worked out in Berlin and it was subsequently ratified at NATO meetings. The hon. Member for New Forest, East must accept that there is a broad consensus on the nature of the problem, although I agree that there is not yet a consensus on the solution, not only in this country but in Europe as a whole—we must continue to try to find that solution.

The debate has covered a wide range of the Navy's activities since the general election. It has illustrated that the Royal Navy remains a force for good in a troubled world. That is why we all join in paying the warmest possible tribute to the men and women, both service and civilian, who make the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines the world-class fighting forces that they are.

The Government see the brightest possible future for the Royal Navy, which not only continues to be close to the heart of all that is uniquely British, but is modern, adaptable and able to take its place in the fast-changing strategic setting of the 21st century. That is why the SDR puts the Royal Navy at the heart of the Government's strategy of building an effective force that is capable of power projection and of being a force for good in the world.

In the thoughtful parts of his speech, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon reflected on the Navy's historical role. We commemorate this year the bicentenary of Nelson's great victory in the battle of the Nile; in 2001, we will celebrate the battle of Copenhagen and, in 2005, the defining battle of Trafalgar. Of the Royal Navy in those days, Mahan said: Those far distant, storm beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the domination of the world". Under our plans, the Royal Navy will maintain its position as a significant force in the world and a service of which we and it can be proud.

Mr. Graham Allen (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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