HL Deb 13 May 1991 vol 528 cc1455-70

10.22 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their intentions for the future of the Rosyth naval base.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, even at this late hour I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the matter of the Rosyth naval base. Some 10 days ago I met a group of shop stewards from the Rosyth naval base who represent all the unions on the base. There are some 10 unions on the base and they call themselves the Rosyth Naval Base Forum. I was greatly concerned by the accounts they related to me although the matter had been reported in the Scottish newspapers for some time.

The shop stewards made it clear that normally they do not combine to the extent that they had on this occasion. However, they had taken such a step on this occasion as the present situation constitutes a serious threat to them. The shop stewards had spoken to Members of Parliament from all parties and to Members of both Houses of Parliament. They had spoken to Ministers whenever they had the opportunity to do so. After listening to those men I felt it was necessary to try to obtain an announcement from the Government on this matter and to give the Government an opportunity to scotch some of the depressing rumours that are current in Scotland.

Sadly, I am now less hopeful that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, will be in a position to help. Last week the Secretary of State for Defence himself spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in Perth. He added nothing to the debate which in any way removed the very strong suspicion that decisions were about to be made which would be devastating for Fife and for the whole of East Central Scotland. That was reiterated by some of the speeches from the floor of the conference at Perth.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the affair is the way in which it has been handled. From all reports the Perth conference was far from pleased with the speech of the Secretary of State for Defence. It appeared that his speech had not initially been designed to dwell on the Rosyth issue but because of the succession of speakers from the floor urging in the strongest possible terms that the base should not be closed he had to say something about Rosyth. However, the rumours are strong, based on a leak to the media some weeks ago.

I find it difficult to believe that the Secretary of State for Defence, with whom I served on a number of long and arduous committees in another place—and one can get to know people reasonably well in another place—was personally involved in leaking the rumour to the media. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that there was a substantial leak. A great deal of damage has been done and the consequences for Scotland are difficult to exaggerate.

I am very well aware that there are a number of noble Lords who have put their names down to speak in this short debate who are far better equipped than I to deal with the strategic consequences of closing Rosyth. Therefore, I propose to confine myself mainly to the social problems that such a closure would bring about.

I take a little comfort from part of the Secretary of State's speech at Perth, as reported in the Glasgow Herald of 11th May. Mr. King is quoted as saying: There are strategic issues, there are human personal considerations, and there would certainly be the views of Ian Lang with the Scottish dimension as well". Following that helpful statement one must ask at what point were the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Ian Lang MP, and the Scottish Office consulted. It seems to me that there should be active Scottish input into the deliberations from the very beginning of any review.

The Minister will be fully aware of what has become known as "the alternative Livesay plan to keep Rosyth open". The plan was apparently rejected by the Ministry of Defence without, so far as I know, any allowance for social or personal considerations such as those which Tom King spoke of at Perth. Surely an option such as that prepared by Vice-Admiral Livesay would have merited greater attention if the Scottish Office had been present to spell out the social consequences of closure.

My honourable friend the Member for Garscaddon in another place, who is Shadow Secretary of State, wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland at the end of February this year. He said: It is always more difficult to reverse a decision that has been taken. If the Scottish Office sits it out until approached it may well be too late to influence the course of events". There has been a reply from Mr. Lang to that letter, but it is much the same as before. The Scottish Office is well aware of what is going on and was more than kept informed. I want the Scottish Office to be involved at the earliest stage when it is a matter concerning large numbers of people. There should be a social output from the beginning.

The House should know that the social and economic effects on Rosyth are horrendous. There could be a loss of 2,000 jobs if one includes both Rosyth and Pitreavie. The Scottish Office has estimated that a further 1,750 jobs could be lost as a result. About 3,000 uniformed personnel would leave the area. I hope that such job losses in an area where the unemployment rate is already well above the national average will be unthinkable. That is why there must be early and positive social input into the Admiralty spending review.

I have here a copy of a touching and forceful open letter sent to the Secretary of State for Defence by half a dozen naval wives in Rosyth. They are well aware that their husbands are not in a position to write, so they decided to write themselves. They have listed one or two points on which I hope that the Minister will be able to assist them.

The wives are concerned about the fact that they would have to vacate Rosyth involuntarily. They would be virtually forced out. Their employment would be disrupted, as would their children's education. The Minister must be well aware that a sudden move from the Scottish to the English education system, or vice versa, at a critical time can have a serious effect on children. There is great uncertainty among teenagers and those ready to leave school about what is likely to happen to them. I speak not only of the servicemen's children but of the childre 1 of other skilled people at the naval base.

The naval wives stressed another important point. Naval families who have served in the area previously and whose sons and daughters are stationed there frequently retire up there, so another difficulty would arise because the older people who had retired there to be with their children would again be separated from them.

Then there is the difficult question of housing. The price differential between Scotland and any other place to which the sailors or skilled people might be sent would be too much for most of them to bear. There are also problems with surplus married quarters accommodation. I understand that most of the accommodation falls under a five-year non-sale clause which would make it difficult to dispose of such property. Will families be able to remain in naval quarters if the base closes, although it would be a rather empty place?

The naval wives point out another sad fact. The wives of serving sailors would be separated from them if the husbands were moved to a post down south while the wives remained in Scotland. The wives point out rather poignantly that the divorce rate among the Royal Navy is higher than for any other of the services.

Local economic dependence on the naval base is tremendous. Without it, the whole area would be devastated.

I raise the issue tonight in an attempt to show that a proper defence review should examine all those social aspects which, sadly, most people in Scotland feel are too often ignored by Whitehall departments serving only their own special remit. I hope that tonight's debate will not only elicit expertise on purely defence matters and the strategic problems of the naval base, but will emphasise the dire social consequences of such a closure.

10.35 p m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for having raised this subject fairly early, given the rumours circulating in Scotland. It is common knowledge that the Government are considering reductions in defence in general. They have issued the consultation paper Options for Change. I am sure we all welcome the prospect of what is called the peace dividend. We can and should adapt to the end of the cold war, though we have to be ready for further changes in the Soviet Union, some of which may be unexpected and unpredictable. The Government may not have taken the relevant decisions concerning naval bases yet, and we may hear more about that this evening. I do not know. There are rumours that Rosyth may no longer be retained as a naval base. In undertaking their review I hope the Government will take into account the following points.

I suggest there are continuing requirements after the end of the Cold War which can best be met by a naval base at Rosyth. First, should the facilities be closed down there would no longer be a base for ships of the Royal Navy or NATO along the whole east coast of Britain. Second, Rosyth is a suitable centre for training in mines. There are sea areas nearby more suitable for practical work in that field than the crowded Channel, where the remaining naval bases would be. Third, Rosyth is most conveniently situated as a centre for vessels engaged in the protection of oil and gas installations and operations in the North Sea, especially in the northern area east of Shetland, where some of the most valuable and prolific oil fields are. Though production is gradually diminishing, it is likely to continue in parts of the North Sea for 30 or 40 years. Fourth, fishery protection services can best be controlled and serviced from the Firth of Forth. Much of their work is along the east coast and the waters to the north east.

There is a tradition of service in that part of Fife to the Royal Navy and the Rosyth base, in civilian employment as well as in uniform. As the noble Lord has said, in the event of closure unemployment in the area would increase sharply and inflict pain and uncertainty, unless a gradual run-down and coordinated introduction of appropriate viable alternative industry or services were arranged. The present workforce is familiar with the kind of work and commitments required. Earlier generations and other members of their families have been employed there. To lose all of that would be to jettison a valuable national asset.

I know that the trade unions concerned have been presenting a reasonable, restrained, but nonetheless cogent case for retaining a base at Rosyth, accepting that changes must be expected. I have not been lobbied by them or asked to see them, but I have read their written observations and respect the sensible case they have been making.

I am vice-president of the Parliamentary Maritime Group. I and my family are not a naval family but we are a military family—Army and RAF. I am keenly aware of the importance of the seas to Britain's national interests. Well chosen support for our naval strength is essential to protect us, to police the seas and to help our allies and the international community throughout the world.

10.40 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, if the debate goes on for a long time, I shall have to leave before it ends. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me. However, my last train is at 11.55 p.m., and it is about 50 miles for me to walk home. I do not intend to discuss the political question, trade unions, unemployment or the effect of closure on service personnel, their wives and children. I have been briefed. Despite that, I wish to speak only on the defence aspect of this matter.

I have said before in this House that I do not believe the beautiful idea that the Cold War is over. Khrushchev rose through the ranks and became the boss of the KGB. It is asking rather a lot to believe that now Russia is all sweetness and innocence and just wants peace with us. Since the end of the so-called Cold War, the Soviet Union has produced numbers of submarines. We no longer have the Iron Curtain as such and their army has been pushed back a long way; but we still have to face backfire bombers and submarines. That is an inescapable fact.

As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said, if we do not have Rosyth, we have no bases down the whole of the eastern side of England and Scotland. There is no protection. We cannot send our vessels to protect the oil rigs or act as fishery protection and so on. What is more, should the Russians turn nasty, we will have no forces nearby to defend Norway and other places.

There need only be a minor change of government in the Soviet Union and suddenly the Cold War could be back with us with a vengeance. If we do not have Rosyth naval base, what are we to do? It is one thing to say, "Right, we shall reduce all these things because now we have peace". If highly skilled and trained personnel are scattered, how can they be brought back when they are needed? How long does it take to retrain people and reinstall facilities?

I have read that, as opposed to closure, there have been alternative plans made for Rosyth naval base which would in fact save£13 million. So there is a financial consideration. But I would suggest that what matters above all else is the defence of this country. Closing down Rosyth not only affects the defence of this country. It seems to me that we let down our NATO allies. What will they think? If the Government have not made up their mind, I ask them to think again not merely on the political issues but on the straightforward matter of defence.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for his initiative in asking the Question. I also congratulate the trade unionists, about whom he spoke and who have spoken to me, on their splendid coverage in speaking to so many people in both Houses of Parliament.

As quickly as I can—hut it is an important subject—I must plead with the Minister to convey to his friends the importance of deterrence. Deterrence is not a phrase much used these days but it is vital. There is the need always to consider the importance of inadvertent signals which can so easily be misinterpreted by other countries, both friends and potential enemies. Friends in NATO could easily misinterpret this possible action. I shall say more with regard to potential enemies later. A good example was the Falklands and the proposed withdrawal of the "Endurance". We are told that the US ambassador's inadvertent signals to Saddam Hussein may well have caused the invasion of Kuwait.

There is need to remember always that we have no signs whatsoever yet of the Soviet Union reducing its naval new construction programme. There is recent evidence that the KGB is stronger than ever. Recent examples that I have seen of the active measures that the KGB used against Yeltsin make it remarkable that he was able to survive but frightening that these things could happen in a country which was supposed to be working towards democracy. The KGB is clearly operating in support of the very powerful military and the country is increasingly unstable.

It is crazy not to take these factors into account before one even starts to think about money. Thus, we must preserve the NATO deterrent and our part of it. My speech in the defence debate of 17th July last year at col. 837 is as relevant today, if not more so, than when it was made. I commend it to my noble friend when he has a chance to read it.

Rosyth, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said, is the only naval base on the east coast of the UK. Travelling anti-clockwise, it is the only base between Portsmouth and the Clyde. It is also the only one from which sea defence of oil rigs can readily be mounted. It is proven as a base for minesweeping training and the fishery protection patrol. Creating a new base—which I believe has been suggested—will cost money over the next few years rather than saving money.

Rosyth is also the main surface ship Scottish home port for Scotsmen, who form a significant proportion of naval recruits and one which is higher in relation to the overall population of Scotland than is the case in the UK generally. Recruiting and retention could be seriously hurt by the naval base's removal. Surely, too, closure would be politically disastrous at this stage.

I make a serious point. If economies must be found, I suggest to my noble friend that he considers the grossly overstaffed Ministry of Defence. Some years ago a friend of mine who was a service chief of great distinction who was serving in the MoD replied, when asked by me about possible savings that were not being considered: "A massive reduction of assistant secretaries and their supporting pyramids would do no harm, much good, and save much money". I mean that very seriously.

Thus the Government must think again about Rosyth and delete it from their list of reductions. Strategy really must come before costing is finalised. The naval base personnel need to know that decision sooner rather than later. Morale has dropped steadily since 23rd December, when the possibility of closure was first mooted. And what a date to choose—just before Christmas and the new year. Of course the date was not chosen; it just happened when Parliament rose for the Christmas Recess. No thought was given to the misery that people might suffer from their uncertainty during the holiday period. I am reminded of the causes of the Invergordon mutiny in the 1930s.

I implore my noble friend to persuade his colleagues not only to make the decision on the issue for which all noble Lords who have spoken have called for but also to announce that decision soon in order that the uncertainty can be removed.

10.50 p.m.

Lord Cochrane of Cults

My Lords, I must begin by declaring an interest. Of those speakers listed tonight I am the only one who lives in Fife. It also happens that the base bears the name of my distinguished ancestor. That is not an interest that weighs with me; it is merely an historical accident.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for raising the subject tonight. The issue is not one of employment but of national defence; it used to be called defence of the realm. There are reasons for seeking information now. It is interesting to note that Rosyth is now the most modern naval base of the traditional naval bases. It was authorised in 1906 because the considered opinion of the Cabinet was that the old three bases—that is Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport—were becoming obsolete. The last two are still in use. It is useful to seek information because the dockyard part of the naval base represents the largest engineering employer in Scotland. It has been privatised and it is diversifying energetically. Nonetheless, if it is to survive in anything like its present form it needs a substantial amount of naval work. Its programme of work was seriously disrupted by the scrapping of a nuclear submarine which was due for a major refit.

I also wish to draw attention to the personnel problems that will be caused if the base is closed. It is traditional in the Navy that Rosyth postings are unpopular. If one wishes to be posted to a Rosyth ship one can go for as long as one likes and to as many as one likes in succession. If the base is closed there will be a great disturbance to the people who have been established there for many years doing their best for the Navy. That would be regrettable.

Furthermore, there is an operational problem. If Rosyth is closed the two remaining bases of any size, Portsmouth and Devonport, would not have the capacity to accommodate our present fleet, even if it were at its present active size of 35 frigates and major ships. It must be remembered that not so long ago we were assured of a policy of maintaining a fleet of about 50 frigates.

I return to what was said by my noble friend Lord Mottistone about the strategic implications. The issue is one of strategy. The Cold war has not ended. All that has happened is that the frontier of the Iron Curtain has been pushed back eastwards by revolutions in the client states. The threat to the northern maritime flank of NATO remains as it was; it is unchanged. The Russian empire is disintegrating. When an empire is falling to pieces there is always the danger that it will engage in a foreign adventure. History has taught us that lesson many times. Mention was made of the Falklands where President Galtieri decided that he had better take his chaps' minds of their miseries at home and earn a little popularity. We defeated him there in the main with naval power.

The northern flank is really the Denmark Strait, as it is sometimes called, where the "Bismarck" was sunk and where, alas, our own HMS "Hood" was also lost. It extends from Norway to Labrador, some 80 degrees of longitude. The old concept of Admiralty seems to have deserted our Government.

Perhaps I may mention an episode which I believe occurred in my lifetime, in the 1920s. The Admiralty Board heard the alarming news that the railway from Plymouth to Exeter was to be electrified. It immediately demanded from the Great Western Railway that it maintain 50 engines permanently in steam for the benefit of the Admiralty if such a daring innovation was to be contemplated. At least it did not demand sailing trains.

As my noble friend Lord Mottistone, said, the Russians still have a huge naval programme. In spite of their economic difficulties, there is no sign that it is to be reduced in any significant sense. We should not—and I repeat not—rely exclusively on the United States or on Trident. Things can go wrong if one relies upon one system.

From the points I have made, I consider that a northern base is a strategic necessity. It has been shown to be so in two wars and the threat still remains in the North. Your Lordships will recall the old nursery rhyme: For want of a nail, a shoe was lost". It went from a shoe to a horse and from a horse to a war. If we drop our guard we may lose not only a war but a nation which has existed uninvaded for over a thousand years. I ask the Government to consider very carefully the strategic implications of what is proposed.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said earlier that it was thought that perhaps£13 million would be saved. That is roughly one sixth of the price of a frigate and slightly more than the annual cost of a Bill which did not find favour with your Lordships recently. Therefore I suggest that this idea should be firmly squashed in the very near future.

10.58 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for not putting down my name to speak. I had a commitment earlier today in Scotland and I was not sure whether I should arrive in the House in time.

My noble friend Lord Cochrane of Cults and other noble Lords have pointed out the strategic importance of Rosyth from a geographical point of view and I shall not repeat what has been said. However, I should like to enlarge upon the point made by my noble friend Lord Mottistone; namely, that Rosyth is of considerable strategic importance as regards recruitment for attracting young Scots to join the Navy and, indeed, the Army and the RAF.

Rosyth is very much a part of Scottish life. I see that my noble friend Lord Reay, who is chief of the clan Mackay, is sitting beside the Minister and if the Minister is not aware of that, he will tell him about it. Rosyth is part of our national consciousness and pride. In the Scottish press we read constantly of the comings and goings of the naval ships. Open days are held for the public. Sailors from our own and other navies are a familiar sight about the streets of Edinburgh, Fife and the Lothians. We see the ships arriving and leaving as we cross the Forth road or rail bridge. Indeed, I was among the many people who watched two minesweepers as they left the Forth estuary for the Gulf not too long ago.

It is hard to know precisely how many young men and women join the armed forces because of Rosyth. As my noble friend said, Scotland produces more recruits per head of the population than other parts of Great Britain. It seems likely that Rosyth plays a considerable part in that. Were it to close, recruiting in Scotland would certainly suffer.

The most important question is whether we can afford not to keep the naval base at Rosyth. It can only be closed if the number of ships in our Navy is to be considerably reduced. As my noble friend Lord Cochrane said, there would not be enough room to accommodate the ships that already exist. Attractive though the prospect of the peace dividend is, are we really wise further to reduce our Navy?

It is not just a question of whether the Cold War is really over. In an article today in the Glasgow Herald there appeared a quotation from a recent speech by Ronald Lehman, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He said: it is indeed ironic—perhaps the central irony of our time—that just as the United States and the Soviet Union are moving seriously to reduce and control our weaponry, other nations, many found in regions of great tension, are moving in precisely the opposite direction". The article points out, for example, that, Pakistan is now so close to joining the nuclear club that President Bush can no longer certify to Congress that Pakistan does not have the bomb". Pakistan sees its weapon as a weapon capable of being used in the Moslem cause. North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, but since then has refused to allow its weaponry to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Algeria is the only Arab country not to sign the new Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is thought that it could produce enough plutonium to build a bomb by 1998.

Those are only three examples of the instability that still exists in the world. Dare we reduce our Navy? If we do not reduce it we need Rosyth. Even if we do reduce it, for the many reasons enunciated by your Lordships, we still need Rosyth. I hope that the Government will give close attention to what is being said about the issue. I attended a fringe meeting during the Conservative conference at Perth last week. It was in a fairly big room which was packed; there was standing room only. There was very strong feeling about the issue and not just from the trade union side of the discussion. There was strong feeling about the meaning of Rosyth to Scotland and to people who were there. I hope that the Government will pay attention to the debate.

11.3 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I too apologise to the House for keeping it late. I have been at a meeting in Paris. I intended to stay the night but when this valuable Question was tabled I did without my good dinner in order to be here.

One of the interesting points about the debate was the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. When I saw the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, I said to myself, "Ah, he wants a base in the Isle of Wight". But instead he put with great force, great clarity and feeling the broad view which I am afraid it appears the Government have not taken.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, I met the three gentlemen from the workforce in the base at Rosyth. I was delighted by the competence with which they had gone about their business—they were perhaps more competent than the Government. They had gone to the universities and asked people to lay down the social and economic arguments, and produced a first-class case. I trust the Minister will tell us that he has read and studied it with great care.

The issue boils down to a question of dispersal. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and others have made the point that we have North Sea oil and that our wealth is to be protected from Devonport. That appears to be a little illogical. The argument about the training ground for minesweeping is very strong.

The Government should consider the broader aspect, and of cutting out a whole naval base, concentrating naval strength and repairs in the south, is illogical. In the south there is a collection of skills and a core. It may be that that will be cut in a general cut-down, but even if that were so, one keeps the core. I hope that the Government have considered that point. I hope also that the Government have carried out proper studies concerning cuts in the south at Devonport, Chatham and elsewhere. I hope that we will not receive the unadorned answer that we have had until now, that no decision has been taken. That is a pretty poor answer.

The matter was sprung on the Scottish public by a leak which showed clearly that plans were being made. I ask the Government specifically whether plans have been made for a reduction in the facilities on the south coast and whether they have been studied with the same care. Can they say whether any decision has been taken in that regard? It is an extremely serious subject. My neighbour, the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, put the matter in a nutshell when she said that the political case for the Government to look at the matter is extremely strong. I do not want to see the Conservatives do particularly well in Scotland, but from their own point of view of self-preservation they should look at the issue on social and economic grounds. As regards the defence point of view, as suggested by many people, the Government should think about the question very seriously and decide to keep the naval base.

11.7 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, my noble friend made a very pertinent point in asking how far the Government have examined the possibility of reducing base facilities in southern England. That must be part of the equation when they come to make their decision. The Government have heard a very powerful case tonight for retaining Rosyth naval base. We are discussing the naval base and not the dockyard. I shall be very surprised to hear that there are plans to abandon the dockyard, with its vital, huge and expensive facilities for refitting Tridents. We are talking about the base tonight.

I am not sure that I found the most cogent argument for keeping Rosyth the contention that we should maintain our strong Navy and not cut the number of frigates and submarines as suggested in Options for Change. I do not find that a powerful argument for Rosyth. Though modest, Options for Change was right. I am not aware that any political party opposes Options for Change. The case for reducing from 50 to 45 the numbers of frigates and destroyers can be made. The Government are proposing to cut the submarine fleet by 10. These decisions can be defended. Therefore I wonder whether it is wise to put forward the case for retaining Rosyth as part of the argument for not reducing our naval capability at all.

We have heard some very gloomy speeches tonight about the state of East-West relations. Despite the Gulf and the chaos inside the Soviet Union, or because of it, the Soviet threat to the United Kingdom is very much less than it has been in past years. The Government accept that fact; indeed, all parties have accepted it. Therefore, if we are proposing to reduce our naval capability we must not shirk from the logical consequence that there will be a smaller requirement for base facilities in this country.

However, what we can and do say to the Government is that the decisions must be taken in the proper manner. They must fully take into account the kind of social and economic factors mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael. They must also take into account the strategic points made by my noble friend and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, about the strategic positioning of Rosyth. All those factors must be taken into account, together with the possible options on the south coast.

I am also bound to say that I find it surprising that the Rosyth base is being discussed in this way. I visited it 25 years ago as Navy Minister. I have no reason to suppose that it is not as well run and as cost-effective today as it was then. I note that Options for Change—and this is a point which I believe no one has yet made—does not call for any reduction in the number of mine counter-measure vessels. That is indeed not the case. The number is 40 today and Options for Change says that it should be 40 tomorrow. Moreover, it said so before the advent of the Gulf war. If anything; proved the importance of these vessels, it was the part they played in the Armilla Patrol and in Operation Granby.

That is a vital point so far as concerns the Government. It is the specialty of the Rosyth naval base. There is also the question of fisheries protection which was mentioned by a previous speaker. That force is not big enough. I have said that I concede a reduction in the number of our frigates, destroyers and submarines; but I do not concede a reduction in the number of the fishery protection vessels. On the contrary, I believe that there is a very good case to be made for strengthening that protection. Bearing that in mind, it seems to me that Rosyth easily suggests itself for the purpose.

I am not trying to dodge the question. It is very important not to do so. But if we believe that a safe reduction is possible in our naval capacity, that implies a reduction in base facilities. We must insist that the Government make their choice properly and that they make their decisions in the right order, with the big questions coming first. For example, how big a Navy do we want? How much of it will be above and how much below the surface? Then one comes to consider base facilities. That is the order in which the decisions must be made. I have seen no great evidence to suggest that the Government are approaching the matter in that way. They may have made the right decision about the frigates and the destroyers, but they approached the issue not on grounds that were respectable from a defence point of view; they approached it on the grounds of Treasury pressure. There is no questioning that fact. Indeed, that is the conclusion which the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence came to and which it set out in its report.

As I said, we must insist that the Government answer the questions which have been put to them tonight as to why it should be Rosyth. Why not the South? Where can Rosyth's interests be matched with the interests of the country? Those are the questions we want answered. We want to be assured that the Government will take the decision they have to take in a proper and appropriate manner.

11.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, perhaps I may say, first, how pleased I am to be able to reply to this debate. It gives me the opportunity to focus upon Her Majesty's Naval Base at Rosyth, about which there has been much discussion and, indeed, speculation over recent months. I am certainly aware of the views that have been expressed by Members of Parliament and by the people who live near to or work at the naval base about the importance of Rosyth both in defence terms and to the local community. I shall examine those aspects later in my reply.

First, I should like to talk briefly about the beginnings of Rosyth and outline the contribution that it currently makes towards our defence effort. Rosyth, in common with the other naval bases in the United Kingdom, has a distnguished history in support of the Royal Navy. It came into existence at the beginning of this century owing to the rapid expansion of German naval strength and the need for a dockyard to repair what was then the newest and most powerful type of battleship, the Dreadnought. Land was first bought in 1903 and construction began in 1909. The first warships were docked there in 1916 and from 1917 the Grand Fleet was based there. In 1925 Rosyth went into a period of care and maintenance although it became operational again in 1938. In 1963 it was decided that Rosyth would be a refitting base for nuclear-powered submarines. This commitment has been maintained with the decision in 1984 that refitting facilities would be developed for Trident submarines.

Rosyth supports two main activities, the naval base and the royal dockyard. It also supports a number of lodger units such as an establishment of the Defence Research Agency, degaussing facilities, a chart maintenance depot and a marine services school and depot. The dockyard complex, which is commercially managed and is a separate entity albeit within the confines of the base, undertakes the refit, repair and maintenance of warships. The principal function under debate today is the operational support of ships. Rosyth is the base port for and provides operational support for four of our Type-42 air defence destroyers, HM Ships "York", "Edinburgh", Liverpool" and "Glasgow". It is also the base port for the majority of the Royal Navy's minor war vessels which carry out many tasks, although the two primary capabilities are mine counter-measures and fishery protection, a point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy.

The naval base provides these ships with maintenance, technical and logistic support, together with specialist facilities and back-up support for personnel based there. Teams of personnel are also deployed from Rosyth to support the mine counter-measure vessels when they are operating away from the base, such as is being done in the Gulf, a point well drawn out by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. Some 2,400 civilians are employed in and around the naval base. There are also some 4,300 uniformed personnel at Rosyth either in shore jobs or serving on board ships which are based at Rosyth.

Rosyth naval base has been called on to provide ships and personnel in support of many naval operations. Over the past 10 years this has included involvement in Operation Corporate, the Falklands Islands conflict, in 1982. Mine clearance in the Suez Canal was undertaken in 1984 during Operation Harling. Operation Cimnel in 1987 was the occasion of the first mine counter-measure deployment in the Gulf. More recently, there was Operation Granby.

I know that noble Lords are aware of the important contribution made by the mine counter-measure vessels which were deployed to the Gulf in September last year. Prior to hostilities they were employed in conducting route surveys to the main Gulf ports and checking that potential mine danger areas were clear. In mid-February they began mine clearance operations preparatory to a possible amphibious operation. Even though hostilities have ended, the MCMVs are carrying on with the important work of clearing designated minefields.

I know there have been concerns about the fact that some vessels which left from Rosyth at the beginning of the conflict have returned to a new base port at Portsmouth at the end of their deployment. This routine transfer has been planned for several years and was no surprise to the crews or their families. It has no bearing on the future of the naval base.

I said at the beginning of my reply that I wished to address the concerns expressed by many people, including noble Lords, about the way forward for Rosyth naval base. The United Kingdom, together with its major NATO allies, has been conducting a thorough review of the way in which our armed forces might be restructured for the mid-1990s in the light of changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The London NATO summit last July recognised that Europe had entered a new and more promising era, to which the alliance should and would adapt. While it would be premature to talk of an end to military risks in Europe, it is clear that any threat from the Soviet Union is much less immediate than it has been in the past, a point with which even the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would agree, despite what he has said. That has allowed us to plan for reductions in the resources that we devote to defence while planning the capacity for regeneration should the need occur.

We shall, however, be careful to maintain and, where necessary, enhance the quality of our defence provision. With fewer forces immediately available to meet unforeseen contingencies, it is all the more important that the forces we retain are properly manned, motivated, equipped and housed. The need to commit forces to the defence of Saudi Arabia and the eventual liberation of Kuwait did nothing to undermine the assumptions on which our plans for smaller forces were based. Indeed, it illustrated the effectiveness of flexible and mobile armed forces for which we are planning in the mid-1990s. It is too soon to draw firm conclusions from the Gulf conflict, but there are no indications that our approach to restructuring our forces will be undermined by the lessons of the war nor that we shall need to recast our broad plans.

The outline of the structure of British forces in the future was described last July by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. In announcing those proposals, he also made it clear that we would be looking for substantial savings in the support area. I confirm to my noble friend Lord Mottistone that that means from teeth to tail. If we are to achieve our aim of strong and reliable forces but at a lower level and at an affordable cost, we must carry our a rigorous and comprehensive review of all activities and resources in the support area to ensure that support is provided in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. Through the means of a wide range of studies, we have been looking at all the establishments which form the fabric of support infrastructure. In the case of support to the Royal Navy, our early investigations indicated that we will have, by the mid-1990s, clear excess of capacity in the naval bases. Work on Rosyth naval base has formed part of that review and we have considered a variety of approaches, including full and partial closure. Full closure would entail the need to transfer ships currently based at Rosyth elsewhere; partial closure would involve the retention of some vessels at Rosyth and rationalisation of the support role and facilities of the naval base. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said during his speech to the Scottish Conservative Party conference last Friday, no decisions have yet been taken about the future of Rosyth. That, I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, is still the case today. In addition we have made the position on all the naval bases perfectly clear. We are reviewing the future of naval establishments in the light of the smaller Navy planned under Options for Change. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that all appropriate alternatives are being considered, and all relevant factors will be taken into account. No decisions have been taken and there are therefore no plans to close any particular base.

I want to take this opportunity to record my anxiety over media reports about the recent appointment of Vice-Admiral Hugo White as Flag Officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland. That was a routine career appointment which had been planned some months ago. Press speculation that Admiral White had been posted specifically to close Rosyth naval base was incorrect, and personal attacks on him were both unnecessary and unfair. Decisions on the future of naval establishments will be taken by Ministers. Admiral White will bring the same expertise and professionalism to his present job that he has shown in his previous appointments.

As I have already mentioned, we have made it clear that all relevant factors will be taken into account before a decision is taken on the future of Rosyth naval base. Those include the need to achieve the most cost-effective support for revised Navy force levels, strategic and operational factors and the implications for employment, the local economy and for civilian and naval personnel. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State said last Friday that it is not simply a question of adding up the financial savings; other related issues will inform our thinking. Neither is there any question of singling out Rosyth or Scotland for unfair treatment. There has been substantial investment by the MoD at a number of locations in Scotland in recent years, and more than half of the current investment in construction projects for the Royal Navy is being spent in Scotland. We have been and remain in close touch with the Scottish Office, both at ministerial and official level and the views of the Scottish Office will form part of our deliberations. I emphasise that point to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael. In addition, our NATO allies are well aware of the broad detail of our options work as outlined by the Secretary of State last year, and this has formed the basis of subsequent discussions with them. The provision of logistic support, however, is a national rather than an alliance responsibility.

We have received representations from many people about the future of Rosyth, and assessments of the possible impact on the local economy and employment. We are aware of the fears that members of the workforce have about possible redundancy. We are also aware of the worry expressed by the wives of naval personnel based at Rosyth about the possibility that their husbands might have to move and their children's education might be disrupted. I wish to leave your Lordships in no doubt this evening that we take these matters seriously. We take all the matters raised by your Lordships seriously such as the matter of strategy mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cochrane, and morale and recruitment mentioned by my noble friend Lady Carnegy. We also take social and other concerns extremely seriously.

We recognise the general uncertainty that such a review creates. It has been suggested that we should publish all the options before any decisions are reached. We recognise the importance of consultation, particularly with trades unions. However, we cannot and will not shirk our responsibility for deciding what should be done. We are committed to full and open consultation once we have firm proposals to make, but we are not yet in that position.

There is no fixed timetable for completion of Options for Change work and Ministers will make announcements when it is appropriate to do so. Your Lordships may be disappointed that I cannot be more specific at this stage; but it is obviously important that we consider carefully all the alternatives before arriving at a view. I have taken careful note of the points raised in your Lordships' House on behalf of Rosyth naval base, its workforce and the local community. I assure your Lordships that we are alive to these anxieties and they will be given the due consideration they deserve as our work continues.

House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past eleven o'clock.

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