HL Deb 05 December 2002 vol 641 cc1284-6

3.15 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration has been given to the provision of satellite television dishes to all Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships; and what would be the cost involved.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, a package utilising existing military satellite links to provide "near real time TV" to larger ships should be complete next summer. We have commenced a trial of the feasibility of providing satellite dishes to all RN and RFA surface ships. Once trials are complete, we will be assessing likely costs and will need to consider the affordability alongside other projects.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that moderately encouraging reply. He knows that recently I completely my commitment to the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme when I joined HMS "Westminster" while it was sailing in the South Atlantic. Is the Minister aware that when I asked members of the crew what single change would most improve life at sea, the almost universal response was the opportunity to keep up with the news, follow football and watch the soaps? That was what would make the greatest difference.

Given that the technology now exists to provide satellite television almost anywhere in the world, perhaps I may encourage my noble friend to give its provision a higher priority? In addition, would the Government be willing to consider a commercial sponsor, if one were forthcoming, to help defray the cost?

Lord Back

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend on completing his tour of duty on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am reliably assured that he made an excellent sailor. As regards his Question, that matter has a high priority. As I say, by summer next year all three aircraft carriers, HMS "Ocean" and all frigates and destroyers will have, effectively, satellite television. That is a high priority.

As far as concerns sponsorship, the Government are ready to consider any practical and realistic ways of providing rest and recreation opportunities, including sponsorship. As my noble friend will know, however, the devil is often in the detail. Any arrangements which might be considered with private sponsors would have to meet rigorous criteria of propriety and regularity.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain what the difference is between "real time" television and "near real time" television and how that affects the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, who spent some time in the South Atlantic?

Lord Bach

My Lords, that is a jolly good question—and I shall answer it. "Near real time" television will use existing military satellite links to transmit approximately six hours of recreational television over an 18 hour period each day. That can be played back on board at a time appropriate to the time zone in which the ship is operating. That is why it is "near real time".

Lord Burnham

My Lords, bearing in mind the enormous demands on finance in the Ministry of Defence, can the noble Lord give a figure for the cost of installation of the dishes?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not in a position to give a figure as to cost. However, as far as the larger ships are concerned that I have outlined, that cost will be met.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, is it not a fact that—bearing in mind the importance of crew welfare—there is a captive audience here? It may be a wonderful opportunity to show some British films. British films have a great deal of difficulty in being distributed and seen. Do the Government have any policy to show those films to the crews in order that we may receive some feedback which may, in the end, have a salutary effect on British film production and distribution which could benefit us all?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Viscount makes an excellent point. Perhaps I should remind him that films, by way of video and film, have been shown on Her Majesty's ships, both surface and submarine, for many years. The film "In Which We Serve", which I am reliably informed was seen by my noble friend Lady Symons on a submarine on one occasion, is one that we shall ensure is shown again soon.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the provision of properly functioning armament and equipment should remain the greatest priority as compared to the provision of television to Her Majesty's ships?

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course I agree with that. The whole House will agree with that. But, as we move forward with technology, it is very important that those who bravely serve on our ships should have as good a time as possible.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, are we moving forward if the programmes shown are similar to the film "In Which We Serve", which I believe is about 30 years old?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Earl, in particular, should ask that question. I thought that, with me, he shared a liking for past times. Thirty years is not that long ago. I think the film is older than that and was made perhaps 60 years ago. But it remains an excellent film, which I am sure the noble Earl has enjoyed.

Lord Puttnam

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the British film industry is finding it extremely difficult to attract audiences outside this country? The fact that sailors on ships will be viewing these films outside the UK may be a tremendous promotional asset for the DTI when it is pointing out the advantages of UK film making.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. No one in this House has greater experience in this field than he. I shall certainly bear what he has said in mind.

Lord McNally

My Lords, if the research of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, is right and the priorities of the men on HMS "Westminster" is to watch news, football and soaps, is this not a long way from the traditions of the British Navy expressed by Winston Churchill, which were "rum, sodomy and the lash"? Does this trend bode altogether well for the mettle of our fighting men?

Lord Bach

My Lords, Sir Winston Churchill was undoubtedly the greatest Englishman ever—the BBC have told us that—but he was not always right.