HL Deb 13 March 1991 vol 527 cc177-80

2.52 p.m.

Lord Shackleton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in regard to the programming and design for the replacement of "H MS Endurance" in 1996.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the requirement for a replacement ice patrol ship is being studied. No decisions have yet been taken.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, am I to deduce from that reply that no progress whatsoever has been made as regards a replacement for "HMS Endurance"? Will the Minister confirm that the existing ship will continue to operate and that there are no proposals to cancel her? Will he bear in mind that on the last occasion the Ministry of Defence cancelled "HMS Endurance", it did so without reference to the Foreign Secretary and despite his protests? Has the Foreign Secretary been consulted on this matter and are any steps being taken to cancel "HMS Endurance" now?

Lord Reay

My Lords, we aim to reach an early decision. "HMS Endurance" is capable of running on into the mid-1990s. The decision must be a government decision and it will be taken in the light of all the necessary considerations. There will be full consultation between the government departments with an interest in the matter.

Lord Pym

My Lords, in view of the enormous importance of the Antarctic Continent, the number of nations that have an interest in it and the fact that the Antarctic treaty is likely to come up for review in the fairly near future, does my noble friend accept that the presence and the deployment of "HMS Endurance" and her successors is indispensable as an element of the British contribution to the work in that continent?

Lord Reay

My Lords, my noble friend expresses a point of view which will have to be considered seriously and carefully. It will have to be taken into account. Our aim is to preserve the Antarctic treaty, as it has proved effective over very many years.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister tell us how many foreign countries have new ships of the same calibre as "HMS Endurance" in the Antarctic?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I do not have that information, but I shall find out and provide it.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in considering the future of "HMS Endurance", will the Government take into account the fact that the presence of a surface ship of this kind in the Antarctic is enormously important both in diplomatic terms and in terms of deterring any form of armed adventure by any country in the region? Is my noble friend aware that in that context "HMS Endurance" is probably one of the most cost-effective units in the Royal Navy? Will the Government bear that fact in mind?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord expressed concerns which we must take into account in reaching a decision.

Lord Molloy

Many Members of both Houses are deeply interested in this subject. Does the Minister accept that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, is the best expert in this House or in any other place on "HMS Endurance" and the Antarctic and that he should put forward our views to the Government and report to us on this matter?

Lord Reay

My Lords, a great many noble Lords know a good deal about this subject. However, no one knows more than the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. I am happy to draw the attention of my right honourable friend to the remarks that have been made.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that the withdrawal of "HMS Endurance" just before General Galtieri invaded the Falklands was one of the signals which made him think we did not care if he took such a course of action?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. Circumstances have changed considerably, however, since 1982. There is a much larger garrison stationed in the Falkland Islands, with a permanent RAF presence. There is also a full-time naval presence, but, above all, there is an air strip capable of taking planes for rapid reinforcement if necessary.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a fairly widespread view in the country, and indeed in your Lordships' House, that the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pym, should not merely be taken into account but should be the firm policies of Her Majesty's Government?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the views will be taken into account and most serious attention will be paid to them.

Lord Lewin

My Lords, while strongly supporting all that has been said, I ask the Minister when he and his colleagues consider the future of "HMS Endurance" not to consider her as just a part of the naval programme and take the easy way out by trading one frigate for a replacement but to consider this as a defence matter and, above all, as a national commitment.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord makes a strong and valid point. We shall certainly take account of it.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, are there not two decisions which face the Government? The first is whether "HMS Endurance" should remain on station performing the duties she presently performs until the mid-1990s. The second decision concerns whether there should be a replacement. Are we not now in difficulties as regards both decisions as we do not know the Government's intentions on either? How soon can we expect a decision on both those matters?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I have nothing further to add to what I have already said. We are studying the requirements for a replacement ship and we aim to reach an early decision.

Earl Jellicoe

My Lords, as someone who was involved with the navy a long time ago, I was very glad to hear my noble friend say he would draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence to the views expressed on all sides of the House. The matter has both military and diplomatic significance of a very high order.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am happy to confirm that I shall draw the attention of my right honourable friend to the views that have been expressed.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, in view of the great interest that has been shown in the House today as regards this matter, perhaps the Government might do well to look towards the Soviet Union where a large number of ice breaking cargo ships suitable for conversion are currently becoming surplus in view of the present situation in that country.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am happy to draw the attention of the department to that observation also.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that "HMS Endurance" has great training value? The Royal Navy has little experience of operating in ice and of flying helicopters in the conditions found in the southern ocean. I hope that factor can also be borne in mind.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend makes an important point that we should take into account.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not the case that this matter has been under consideration by the Government for a long time? What are the reasons for the delay in coming to a conclusion in view of the general opinion in scientific and naval circles that "HMS Endurance" and a replacement are essential in that area if we are to maintain our status and our position there?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am not sure that it is correct to suggest that the decision should have been taken by now. As I said, "HMS Endurance" is capable of continuing in service into the mid-1990s. We aim to reach a decision soon and beyond that there is nothing more that I can say.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, in view of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, had hoped to be present perhaps I may ask one more question. Am I to conclude from what the Minister said that the newly appointed captain of "HMS Endurance" may be without a ship this year or next —year that there is a prospect that "HMS Endurance" may be cancelled out of hand in the next two years? Is that a possibility?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot add to what I have said. We are considering requirements for a replacement.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, does the noble Lord therefore agree that it is a possibility?

Lord Reay

No, my Lords. All I can say is that we are studying requirements for a replacement and hope to be able to reach a decision soon.