HC Deb 04 November 2002 vol 392 cc2-4
2. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

What plans he has to increase Royal Navy safeguards for British shipping; and if he will make a statement. [76694]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The Ministry of Defence works closely with other Government Departments on the protection of merchant shipping. The Royal Navy's worldwide maritime trade operations—known as MTO arrangements—enable it to offer a number of options to support merchant shipping. They range from the provision of routine advice and guidance to naval supervision of merchant vessels. Decisions about the timing and type of support offered are informed by the potential threat in any given region or area. For example, MTO arrangements in the Gulf have been enhanced since October last year. The threat to merchant shipping is kept under constant review. If necessary, additional maritime trade operations measures can be implemented very quickly.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that shipping could be a soft target for terrorists in certain areas? The recent attack on the French tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen was identified as a terrorist attack. Such incidents show the need for Royal Navy protection for British merchant ships in high-risk areas. He is aware that, following the new tax laws for British shipping, there has been a significant increase in British-registered merchant ships—more than 60 per cent. in the past few months—and a substantial increase in British operational interests. The need for the protection of the red ensign is, therefore, of paramount importance at all times. What protection, other than what he outlined in his reply, is the Royal Navy giving to our merchant shipping?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern on this important subject. I agree that we must keep the threat to shipping under close review. I am sure that he and other hon. Members will understand why I will not go into precise detail about that, but the MTO arrangements allow us to make a graduated response, giving the possibility of an appropriate and considered reaction to any increased threat. As I said earlier, the security arrangements for the Gulf region have been enhanced. Maritime trade operations remain under routine daily review by the Ministry of Defence, and can be changed very quickly in response to variations in the assessed threat level.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Secretary of State tell us how many naval vessels are not currently operational and on duty, and what action he is taking urgently to bring more ships back into use?

Mr. Hoon

What I can tell the House is that the Royal Navy is in a position to carry out all the operations that it is required to, and to carry out the medium-scale war-fighting capability required under the defence planning assumptions. The right hon. Gentleman might like to know that Royal Navy vessels and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service are currently deployed in the Caribbean, the Gulf, the far east, the Mediterranean and the south Atlantic. In addition, they continue to undertake operational training.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

According to The Telegraph, the journal of the Merchant Navy officers' union NUMAST—the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers—there have been some 2,300 terrorist or pirate attacks on merchant ships over the past 10 years, in which 280 seafarers have been killed and more than 270 seriously injured. Taking into account this worldwide issue, and the fact that companies are cutting crews, will my right hon. Friend speak to his colleagues in other Departments about the whole issue of safe manning levels and the ability to mount safe patrols on the ships?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I know how conscientiously he pursues merchant shipping matters. I assure him, as I assured the House a few minutes ago, that the Ministry of Defence takes considerable interest in the matter, and we are in regular contact with other Departments to respond to any enhanced threat to merchant shipping, wherever it is in the world.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

But why would not the Secretary of State answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)? In the light of the recent threat to a Royal Navy ship in the straits of Gibraltar and the attack on a French tanker lying off Yemen mentioned by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), are not the Government gambling with Britain's maritime security by allowing half the fleet to remain out of action? Can the Secretary of State confirm weekend press reports that at least two front-line RAF Tornado interceptor squadrons are similarly out of action? Does not all that graphically show that there is no spare capacity and that the Government are simply not prepared for the unexpected?

Mr. Hoon

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman believes everything he reads in the weekend newspapers and, moreover, comes to the House with that material and chooses to run down the capability of the armed forces. Had he listened to my answer to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) more carefully than he apparently did, he would have noticed that the operational responsibilities of the Royal Navy remain unaffected. It is capable of carrying out the range of activities according to the defence planning assumptions. Therefore, the number is not strictly relevant at this stage. Provided that it can carry out the range of its requirements under the assumptions that are set down, that should be an end of the matter. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who claims to take an interest in matters military and the armed forces, should come to the House and run down this country's military capabilities.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Has my right hon. Friend called for an assessment of the implications for the safety of British shipping caused by the delay in getting the Nimrod aircraft back in service? When does he expect it to return to service?

Mr. Hoon

Obviously, there are concerns about the availability of Nimrod. That matter is, for the moment at any rate, the responsibility of BAE Systems. We have a very clear contract with it for the delivery of those aircraft. Obviously, this is a matter that we keep under constant review. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no extra threat to the safety and security of our shipping, because the protection afforded by existing aircraft is quite sufficient for the moment.