HL Deb 23 January 1992 vol 534 cc950-3

3.25 p.m.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question, of which I have given private notice, namely: To ask Her Majesty's Government what decisions they have reached concerning the future of the "Polar Circle"?

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

My Lords, I should like to announce today the Government's decision on a permanent replacement for HMS "Endurance".

"Polar Circle", a Norwegian built logistic support and scientific research ship, was chartered by the Government in October 1991 to carry out the programme planned for "Endurance" this season. The structural condition of HMS "Endurance" made it no longer safe for her to operate in ice, and she has been paid off from the Royal Navy. "Polar Circle" was commissioned into the Royal Navy in November last year, and set sail for the Antartic in early December. She is due to return in May at the end of her current patrol.

The contract under which we chartered "Polar Circle" gave us the option, exercisable until 24th January, to buy the ship or extend her charter. I said in your Lordships' House on 4th November that we would make our decision on how to support our long term commitment to the ice patrol task by that date, and I am able to announce that decision today.

Before making our decision, however, we undertook an extensive assessment of "Polar Circle's" operational performance in the Antartic. This has established to our satisfaction that she will prove a capable and worthy successor to HMS "Endurance". Therefore, the Government are to purchase "Polar Circle" as "Endurance's" long term replacement. We are notifying her owners, the Norwegian company, Rieber Shipping, that we intend to exercise the purchase option.

I informed your Lordships' House in November that, were "Polar Circle" to be retained permanently in the Navy, we would reconsider the name she would carry throughout her operational life. For obvious practical reasons, she will retain her current name for the rest of this season's deployment. Consideration of her future name can now begin and the Admiralty Board intends to make a decision by the time she returns to the United Kingdom. An announcement will follow that decision. As I have said before, "Endurance" is one of the names we will consider.

During this summer, we intend to make some minor modifications to the ship, principally to install further communications and hydrographic equipment, and also to improve her helicopter facility. These will enable her better to perform her tasks in future seasons.

I am conscious of the great importance attached by your Lordships to the ice patrol task. The Government have expressed their continuing commitment to the task, and I am sure your Lordships will agree that the purchase of "Polar Circle" exemplifies that commitment, and will be welcomed by your Lordships' House.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, before I comment may I say how grateful I am to the noble Earl for his Statement and to Her Majesty's Government—particularly to the Leader of the House—in allowing this Question so that the House of Lords gets the first information? I am very grateful to him.

Is the noble Earl aware—and I know that he sometimes has a little difficulty in knowing what is going on; I do not mean that offensively—that as of today no less than three nations are bidding to buy the "Polar Circle"? There are the Italians, who have been there all along, the Indians, who want a ship of that exact description, and finally a Scandinavian joint expedition. I hear from the broker, Rieber Shipping, that anything less than an unqualified declaration of the options runs a very serious risk of the vessel being no longer available. We have 24 hours in which to exercise that option. I should be grateful if the Minister would comment on whether he expects to be able to fulfil the time requirement.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, thinks that I have difficulty at times in knowing what is going on. However, in this case I can assure him, as I have already said, that we are committed to the purchase of "Polar Circle".

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, we on these Benches congratulate the Government on their decision. Will they also accept—and I am sure the noble Earl will accept—that it is due to persistent questioning from my noble friend Lord Shackleton and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that this information has been dragged out of the Government? In congratulating the Government, therefore, will the noble Earl please have the kindness to congratulate my noble friend Lord Shackleton for his persistence?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, naturally, and of course most willingly, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. At the same time I congratulate many other Members of your Lordships' House.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that his Statement will give very great pleasure indeed? Will he join with the rest of your Lordships in indicating what a considerable part the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, played in securing this sensible decision from the Government?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I confirm what I said before. I know that your Lordships will be very pleased and grateful for the most prominent part played by the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that there is widespread feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has shown remarkable wisdom, persistence and foresight in this matter? A good deal of trouble might have been saved if his advice had been taken earlier and more consistently.

The Government, in considering the re-christening of the new ship, might do well not to exclude calling it HMS "Lord Shackleton". I think the "Lord" will have to be included in order to deal with the problem of generations.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, all names will be taken into consideration, but as I said in my Answer the name HMS "Endurance" will most certainly also be taken into consideration.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, can the noble Earl confirm that we are still within the time limit? The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, was worried that unless the Government acted within 24 hours we might lose the opportunity of exercising the option to buy the "Polar Circle".

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we shall most certainly not lose the opportunity to purchase "Polar Circle".

Lord Kennet

My Lords, if the Government had planned ahead from the beginning and had surveyed the likely date on which the old "Endurance" would become no longer usable, would it not have been possible—I am sure that it would have been possible: this is a rhetorical question—for this ship to have been built in a British yard? Will the noble Earl and the House accept that I ask this question not in the least in a spirit of detraction from the right decision which has been taken and in which we rejoice but simply to make a point about naval planning in general?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we consider that we have done the right thing in the circumstances. I can assure the noble Lord that we have got good value for money.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, is the Minister able to say anything about the armaments proposed for "Polar Circle"? Is he aware that concern has been expressed that neither the ship nor the Royal Marine detachment on board will be sufficiently armed to carry out many of the tasks which may arise in the course of their operational duties?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that personal weapons only are embarked as part of the ship's self-protection in the normal way.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if the ship is to be called "Endurance"—I certainly support that —should it not be called "Endurance II", bearing in mind the distinguished record of the first "Endurance"?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that is another consideration that will be borne in mind.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, as this announcement appears to have been welcomed by almost all Members of the House and as it appears to be a reassertion of the fact that we intend to keep the Falkland Islands British, can the Minister give us up-to-date figures for the cost of so doing?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am not quite sure what the noble Lord means. If he is asking for the cost of the operation of the Falkland Islands, that is something that is held in commercial confidence.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will write to me so that the House can know the full cost of what it wants.

The Earl of Arran

No, my Lords, and I have already given the reason why not.

Lord Shackleton

My Lords, I much appreciate the suggestion of the noble Lord who leads the Liberal Democrat Party in your Lordships' House, but "Endurance" is the name that the family prefer. As I think my noble friend explained, it is based on the family motto "Fortitudine Vincimis"—By endurance we conquer. I think "Endurance" is the appropriate name but I fully accept that the Minister is entitled to postpone a decision until further consideration has been given to it. I am grateful to him for undertaking to do so.

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