HL Deb 11 March 1993 vol 543 cc1137-9

3.10 p.m.

Lord Merrivale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there are to be any changes in the role of the Commander Gibraltar Mediterranean Area (COMGIBMED) as a result of the present reduction in naval units there.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, we do not believe that recent announcements made on naval commitments in Gibraltar will result in any changes to the role of the Commander Gibraltar Mediterranean Area.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can one assume, therefore, that Her Majesty's Government agree with the concluding remarks of Andrew Duncan of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in his recent paper NATO and the Gibraltar Zone, where he says that he believes that the strait of Gibraltar is as important today as it has ever been? If that is so, why close this month the RNR unit HMS "Calpe" and propose to close the 30-bed Royal Naval Hospital in Gibraltar?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend gives me an opportunity to confirm that Commander British Forces Gibraltar no longer has an operational requirement for the support that up till now HMS "Calpe" as an RNR unit offers. I point out to my noble friend that we live in an age of technological advance—I do not know whether he would call it progress—that therefore we are able to substitute technology for people and that that makes it more cost-effective.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is it the case that in Gibraltar at the moment there is a small staff, a small naval presence consisting of two patrol vessels and some air force personnel, and that that is all; and that that is commanded by a two-star rear-admiral? Is a two-star rear-admiral the right rank to command that very small force?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord will know as well as I do that the flag officer concerned is what I understand is known in the trade as double-hatted. Not only does he perform the function of the Commander British Forces Gibraltar; he is also an important subordinate commander responsible to CINCSOUTH in the NATO command structure, which effectively gives him command in that structure of the entire western Mediterranean.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, when my noble friend says that technology can replace the RNR is he saying that that view will prevail elsewhere apart from Gibraltar?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, if that is the meaning that I conveyed in my last reply to my noble friend, I am grateful to him for the opportunity to correct the impression. We greatly value the RNR in the Ministry of Defence both for the absolute defence role which it carries out now and as it develops will carry out in the future. In the end, no matter how important the advances in technology may be, they will depend on well trained and well motivated people.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, may I put a further question to the Minister? He is quite rightly, as it were, boosting the part that the RNR can play. Can he say why the closures of the RNR unit HMS "Calpe" and the RNR unit HMS "Graham" in Glasgow were announced at the same time? I thought that there were rather different strategic reasons for closing those two units.

May I seek further clarification on one further point on what the Minister said regarding operational support facilities? Only in January Rear-Admiral J.T. Sanders announced certain changes and envisaged further changes. So will there be changes in the operational and support facilities used by surface units and submarines and in operational training carried out by naval groups in the Gibraltar exercise areas?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I can say to my noble friend that the closure of HMS "Calpe" was part of what I would call a sensible, good-housekeeping measure. It is certainly not part of an overall review of the present functions and strength of the RNR. That housekeeping measure includes the matter he referred to in regard to HMS "Graham" in Glasgow. My noble friend will be aware that we do not take such decisions lightly. We value, as I am sure he does, the important role which RNR units play and also the important voluntary spirit which they embody.

So far as Rear-Admiral Sanders is concerned, I am sure that if my noble friend has seen the statement that the admiral made about the closure of HMS "Calpe", he will have noticed that it had nothing to do with the overall functions, defence or otherwise, of CBF Gibraltar.

Lord Merrivale

My Lords, will the Minister reply to me on this question?

Noble Lords


Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, may I ask just one question? Does my noble friend the Minister agree with the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that two-star admirals are a body we know about?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I have always felt a little uncomfortable—and I am sure that my noble friend feels the same way—about what seems to be an increasingly automatic adoption of an American system of gradation of senior officers. Certainly I am told that a rear-admiral tends to be a one-star officer, although there are also one-star commodores. I shall debate with him at greater length in future the proper designation. I prefer to call him, in a fine traditional British way, a rear-admiral.