HL Deb 16 December 1999 vol 608 cc307-9

11.26 a.m.

Lord Burnham

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether full naval and Royal Air Force patrols will continue over the Christmas period.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, emergency services such as search and rescue and the RAF's Quick Reaction Alert will be on standby over the Christmas period, as they are every day. Depending on operational commitments, most Royal Navy ships and submarines will be in port, either in the UK or in overseas operational theatres. RAF operations overseas will continue as necessary, but normal training will be suspended. These arrangements are applied annually at this time to allow as many servicemen and women as possible to spend time with their families. A full defence capability will be maintained over the period.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. However, is it true to say that only designated tasks, such as Yugoslavia and the Gulf, will result in ships being at sea? The noble Baroness also mentioned flying training. Can she confirm that, because of a shortage of money, all flying training and operational flying has been cut by the Government by 50 per cent?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are in a little difficulty with this Question. The noble Lord's Question specifically refers to the Christmas period. The fact is that there is nothing unusual happening over the Christmas period. As regards the Royal Navy, plans are unchanged; the majority of the fleet will be alongside. HMS "Exeter" will be in the Gulf, HMS "Somerset" will be in the South Atlantic and HMS "Dumbarton Castle" will be in the Falklands. I believe that the noble Lord is concerned about the Navy in the post-Christmas period. The noble Lord has also asked about the RAF. As regards the RAF, it is a case of business as usual. Operations have been unaffected by any of the financial constraints to which the noble Lord refers. Operations within individual theatres will continue under the command of local commanders.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can indulge in some joined-up government with her noble friend Lord Whitty, who has already demonstrated his mastery of air traffic control. My six year-old son expects a visitor on 24th December. If a Frank Dobson look-alike appears on the radar screen, will the RAF and air traffic control guarantee priority landing rights at the McNally household?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord that there will be many priority households on that particular night. Were I to single one out, I am sure that many other six year-olds would be greatly disappointed. The important point is that the defence capability of the United Kingdom will be maintained this year over the Christmas and New Year periods, as your Lordships would rightly expect.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will Trident be on full alert over Christmas?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as the House would expect, there will be a deterrent submarine at sea over the Christmas period.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will British servicemen on naval patrol in the Gulf be permitted to enjoy pork sausages with their Christmas turkey, in contrast to their unfortunate land-based counterparts stationed in various parts of the Middle East, if press reports are accurate?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I have a feeling that we are straying a teeny bit away from the original Question. I am sure that all servicemen and servicewomen who are not able to have the pleasure of being with their families at Christmas—as most of us are—will none the less enjoy thoroughly good food wherever they are.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, it is unlikely that there will be a major attack on this country over the Christmas period, but does the Minister agree that, as the late Lord Cheshire warned, this could be the kind of period when a terrorist might mount an attack?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, far be it from me to detract from the seasonal goodwill which we all expect to evince at this time of the year. We should not, on the one hand, talk up the possibility of people thinking that our defences are down over Christmas; or, on the other hand, overlook the possibility of an eventuality of the kind to which the noble Lord alluded. The important point is to remember what I said in concluding my original Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham: that a full defence capability will be maintained for the people of this country over Christmas and into the New Year.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister's initial difficulty with this Question, can she confirm that Flag Officer Sea Training is being reduced to using simulators because financial shortages are pre venting ships from putting to sea for training?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is important to distinguish which period we are talking about. In my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I was able to assure him that, in relation to the particular Question he posed about the Christmas period, there are no changes. However, some adjustments will be made to planned activity after the Christmas period—a point which I hope I made clear in answering the supplementary quest ion of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. For the remainder of the financial year, it is proposed that there will be some withdrawals from planned exercises. It is important, however, to assure the House. These withdrawals have to be put into the context of the enormously busy and highly successful year that the Royal Navy has enjoyed. Apart from normal operations in the Gulf, the Atlantic, fishery protection and normal deterrence, we should not forget that the Royal Navy has been extremely active and very successful in Sierra Leone, in the Gulf, in Kosovo and in East Timor. It has had a very good year.

Forward to