HL Deb 20 May 1993 vol 545 cc1847-50

Lord Trefgarne asked Her Majesty's Government: What are their plans for the future of the Royal Naval Reserve.

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

My Lords, the Royal Naval Reserve will continue to provide a highly valued contribution to our defence capability. Work is continuing on the future role of the reserves and we hope to announce our proposals soon.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that there are widespread rumours to the effect that all 23 of the RNR's sea-training centres are to be closed? If that is true—or even if it is not—will my noble friend undertake to consult widely before implementing any such draconian closures?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, even at the insistence of my noble friend it would be wrong for me to anticipate the results of that review. However, I think that I can certainly anticipate them enough to be able to say that those rumours, of which I am well aware, are very wide of the mark. We greatly value the sea-going role of the RNR, and the value that we place on it has been taken into consideration during the review. There has been wide consultation, particularly with officers of the RNR and members of the TAVRA council—that is, the council of the Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations—during the past few months.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, on the basis that the Royal Naval Reserve—or part of it at least—uses Rosyth naval dockyard, if I give the Minister a firm assurance that I will not tell anyone else, just between the two of us, can he tell me if Rosyth naval dockyard is to be awarded the Trident nuclear refitting contract?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, even in your Lordships' House I see that the charm of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, has in no way diminished. Nevertheless, despite all his experience and blandishments, I hope that once again I can prevail upon him to contain his impatience on that subject as well as this one.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a Green Paper published by the Government would enable us to discuss what they have in mind for the RNR before anything formal is decided? Would that not be a good way through the problem, because we are so worried about it?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I recognise your Lordships' interest in this important question, and, in particular, my noble friend's concern, especially in view of his own distinguished naval career. The phrase current in my department while we have been undertaking this important review is that the report should have the characteristics of a White Paper with green edges. I hope that the green edges element of the phrase reassures my noble friend that there will be a strong element of consultation once the proposals are announced. I reiterate what I told my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. There has already been considerable consultation with officers of the RNR and members of the TAVRA council during the past few months.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his previous answer that there will be a sea-going element in the future of the RNR will receive a great welcome from those serving in it? If he has had those wide consultations, he will be aware, will he not, of the frustration felt by those serving in the RNR about the great delay in reaching conclusions about its future service? Perhaps I may add my voice to the requests that there should be a further period of consultation so that the frustrations which are felt can be dispelled, and a proper role found, especially for those specialists who can occupy most valuable posts in the RNR.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord's naval experience, as well as his experience in other matters, is well known to your Lordships' House. I chose my words most carefully. The conclusion he draws about the sea-going element is something for which I must ask him to wait a little longer. However, I reiterate that we value deeply the sea-going role, and that will be taken into account. So far as concerns the specialist elements, he will be well aware that in all three services the specialist skills of a number of reservists will be even more valued in the future, in view of the smaller forces. And that will be true also of the RNR.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, what ships are now available to the RNR for training purposes? Will they continue to be available in the future? Is there a role for the Hong Kong patrol squadron here after it is cut off on 30th June 1997 so that the ships may be used for RNR purposes?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as always, my noble friend makes an interesting suggestion. He knows as well as I do that the present minesweeper fleet vessels, which I believe are colloquially known as the Ton class, are available to a number of RNR units. The role of those ships and the sea-going role of the RNR will be part of the review. I am sorry, but I am sure that my noble friend will understand that I cannot go further than that at this stage.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he is correct when he says that there is widespread interest in the RNR? Many of us will be relieved to know that the Government are to introduce a White Paper with green edges. Will we be able to debate that paper when it is published?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. There is no doubt that uncertainty is one of the most debilitating factors in any review. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, in particular, for drawing attention to that point. Nevertheless, it may be some evidence of the seriousness with which we regard consultation, and, in particular, the opinion of those engaged in the RNR that the length of time is, perhaps, rather greater than we would ideally wish. So far as concerns the debate, the noble Lord no doubt knows the procedures of your Lordships' House better than I do. He will find many ways of, and opportunities for, raising this important question. Whether I can undertake to do so in government time is something I suggest that the noble Lord takes up with my noble friend the Chief Whip.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many people believe that the cuts in all three services are substantially greater than justified by current dangers? Is he aware that for the price of one regular he can obtain the services of eight reservists in all three services? Is not that the type of argument which will persuade the Treasury to stop further cuts in our regular services? Will he say that we shall stop selling the Army reserves' drill halls? The same applies to all three services. Will he say that we will expand and recruit for these reserve services as the others are cut?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The services understand clearly that the reserves play a most important part by acting as a link between the Armed Forces of the Crown and the community. As the services become smaller, that role will become increasingly valuable. On his general proposition, I would say merely—it is something I have said frequently before—that if we need to reverse in any way the measures we have so far taken, as we showed the other day over infantry battalions we are prepared to reconsider the question.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is not one of the most important matters affecting the RNR and the Royal Navy itself the fact that they should have sufficient vessels in which to sail? In those circumstances, is he aware—I am sure that he is—of the devastation caused on Tyneside by the unnecessary closing down of Swan Hunter which has a wonderful history of shipbuilding? Is he further aware that only a few miles from that shipyard Westoe colliery has been closed with the loss of 1,000 other jobs? Is not that a matter which should be given the most serious consideration?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a question of great importance. I do not underestimate it, but I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it has little to do with the RNR.

Lord Hill-Norton

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that what worries everyone interested in the Royal Navy and the reserve is not what he has been saying from the Dispatch Box but the strong suspicion, due to the Government's recent track record, that decisions will be taken and announced and then discussed when the damage has been done?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am conscious of the amount of the time of your Lordships' House I have taken so far. If I thought that I had the time, I would be able to read out a list of dates and times during the past few months when consultations have taken place in private with the officers and officials I have mentioned in previous answers. Therefore, I am afraid that I must dispute to a large degree the assertion that the noble Lord has just made.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he has used the word "review" several times and the words "White Paper with green edges" that the Government are to produce at least once? Will the Minister kindly tell the House when this White Paper with green edges will be produced and whether the Government intend that the White Paper should go wider than the RNR and include the Royal Marine Reserve and the other reserve forces which are vital to our future defence? Why not make it a full defence review in the first place?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hesitated a little when I was answering that part of the question, looked at the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and wondered whether I was wise to use the phrase "White Paper with green edges". If the noble Lord looks at the record I hope that he will see that I said that it was a phrase current in my department to characterise the nature of the review. I was not anticipating the publication of a White Paper with green edges on the subject. Just as we expect an announcement about the RNR, the other reserve forces will be the subject of other announcements.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, without wishing to correct the Minister, in response to his noble friend Lord Mottistone who asked for a Green Paper, is he not aware that he used precisely that expression? If it is to be a Green paper, let it be a Green Paper.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am content as always to rely on the evidence of the Official Report. Let us see what it contains tomorrow morning.