Previous Section Home Page

Column 212

force has suffered because of the extension of the operational lives of the Leander and type 21 vessels--bringing with it additional demands on manpower--and possibly resulting in more applications for premature voluntary release. Finally--and in the context of all that the Committee has said, possibly its most perceptive

observation--there was the Committee's concern that the wartime objectives place too heavy an emphasis on forward maritime strategy to contain Soviet forces in the Norwegian sea, resulting in prejudice to the task of defending transatlantic shipping.

None of those concerns has been properly answered. The root of them all lies in the building programme. Until the Government tackle that programme, the weaknesses will remain ; and, unless they tackle it, the weaknesses will be exacerbated. The Government must tackle that programme in a systematic way, with a clearly published programme of work. That will be essential for companies such as Yarrow, which was a beneficiary of the announcement of 11 July last year. It is at least as important for companies such as Swan Hunter, which wants to tender, but is forced to take major decisions about capacity and employment with no proper information about the future of the market place. It is in the interests of the Ministry of Defence to makes its intentions clear ; otherwise the competitive base may be eroded and it will find itself negotiating with a monopoly supplier. I say with some regret--I include those in today's debate--that Ministers are wholly unconvincing about the numbers of destroyers and frigates available. The very words "about 50" are imprecise and misleading. Why not say, "Not less than 50"? Why not say something definite and specific? Let us suppose that the Minister went to purchase a motor car. He asked the salesman, how many previous owners that it had had, and the salesman replied, "About two, sir." Would he be satisfied with that reply? Would he not regard it as the kind of imprecision which should put him upon his guard? I ask hon. Members whether they would buy second-hand frigates from Ministers. How can it be that five of the new type 23 frigates will be unable to operate effectively vertical launch Sea Wolf missiles? For that I rely on the authority of Jane's Defence Weekly of 11 February 1989.

The CACS 4 system has been rejected. The Under-Secretary was at his most felicitous, his most reasonable and almost, I suppose, his most charming. He verged on, but perhaps did not achieve, the necessary blandness of the salesman. What he did not tell the House and what he gave the House no undertaking upon is how that will be prevented from happening again. He was not able to tell the House when the necessary command and control system will be installed. A Minister who learned that the command and control system was insufficient in quality or range would have been foolish to press ahead with it. The House is entitled to know whether those lessons have been learnt and whether steps have been taken to ensure that the same difficulties do not occur again. Who takes responsibility for the circumstances which have arisen?

The Minister made no mention of any further orders for auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels. As further frigates are built there will be a need for more AORs. Is it the Government's intention to order more? If they did, that would give much encouragement to the shipbuilding


Column 213

industry in all parts of the United Kingdom. I do not recall any mention of the NFR 90--indeed, other hon. Members have raised this issue earlier. Perhaps the Minister will give us some up-to- date information. There was no mention either of any consideration by the Government of the use of smaller vessels, such as those of corvette size that may be ideally qualified to perform tasks related to national security in and around the United Kingdom, such as dealing with gun running and drug trafficking.

As I have said already, the Minister gave some hint of largesse or generosity to come but, when examined, it was no more than a hint and was of little substance. The mobilisation of NATO would require a thousand transatlantic sailings by cargo ships in 30 days, over and above normal traffic. Just as the Select committee on Defence felt it necessary to ask, we too must ask how it is possible to defend these movements and to maintain the forward maritime strategy of bottling up the Soviet fleet in the Norwegian sea on the figures available of the numbers in the surface fleet.

Running through this whole issue is a conflict of priorities caused by a paucity of resources. The Government must ask themselves--and, if not, the House undoubtedly will--how that conflict is to be resolved. There are two alternatives. We may choose one course of action at the expense of the other--that is to say, establish and adhere to priorities ; or we may provide sufficient resources to meet all the desirable strategic requirements. The second of these alternatives is the more desirable militarily. It will have financial consequences, but these cannot be ignored if we are to ensure that the Navy is in a position to fulfil the responsibilities which we impose upon it. The Navy has been charged with the most awesome military responsibility of all, because strategic nuclear weapons fall under its responsibility--now Polaris but soon to be Trident. A consensus seems to be growing that, by the time of the next general election, the Trident programme will be so far committed that its outright cancellation will be neither practical militarily nor financially advantageous. For that, I need do no more than echo the words of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), speaking in the debate on the defence estimates to which I have already referred. He told the House then that, by 1992, 60 per cent. of the expenditure of the Trident programme would be committed and that cancelling the Trident programme in 1992 would allow savings of only between £1 billion and £3 billion, depending on the interpretation of the terms of the contract.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Will the hon. and learned Member agree that one of the dangers of the whole Trident programme is that, once it is nearing completion, those involved with it will suddenly discover all sorts of other expenditure which must be incurred to make it work? It is a little dangerous to assume that the cost will stay fixed once the thing nears completion.

Mr. Campbell : The experience has been that the cost has gone down since the first estimates were made, assisted to some extent by advantageous rates of exchange but also, no doubt, by a degree of advance and of technical innovation. I accept that there may be what I think the hon. Member is referring to by implication--hidden costs--but any cost directly recovered from the cancellation of


Column 214

the programme would not be such as to justify cancellation at the point at which any new Government might have the opportunity of making that decision.

We must all accept, therefore, that Trident will be in place, or effectively in place, and that the decisions about defence which any Government elected in 1992 must take will be conditioned by the fact of its existence. No one now argues that one should take the strategic nuclear deterrent, or the submarines which would be the means of delivering it, tow them into the middle of the Atlantic, open the sea-cocks and hope that they will simply sink to the bottom.

Mr. Sayeed : I should like to be absolutely certain what the latest Liberal party defence policy is. Would its members pledge themselves to maintaining Trident submarines and the weapons that go with them for the forseeable future?

Mr. Campbell : Yes. I hope that a monsyllabic answer does not take the hon. Gentleman unawares.

One thing is certainly true, that any strategic nuclear deterrent is justified only as long as it contributes to the peace. The current independent deterrent has done so. But we would be quite wrong to take the view that there is some intrinsic merit in strategic nuclear weapons. Their value is only in the consequences that they bring about or, perhaps, putting it another way, in the consequences that they prevent. If the time ever came when the United Kingdom's independent nuclear weapon turned out to be an obstacle to arms reduction, there would be no case for its retention.

While it is not possible to say precisely when such a moment might arise, what one can say in this context is that the events of the past two or three years would have been entirely unpredicted during the Brezhnev years. One can also say that any agreement which involved giving up the independent nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom would have to be part of an arrangement involving us and our allies and not as part of some purely bilateral deal with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union itself recognising that that particular offer or any kind of arrangement based on an offer of that sort would be entirely unsuitable and, to them, unacceptable.

In relation to our defence policies we should be seeking to create an atmosphere in which each side feels confident that the other will not attack it, in which the interests of one side become the interests of the other.

With some important variations, this debate could have been held last year because the concerns about ship numbers remain the same, the questions which had not then been formulated perhaps as precisely as they have now been by the Select Committee on defence remain the same and, sadly, the answers remain, for some of us at least, on both sides of the House, equally unconvincing. On that matter, if nothing else, this debate has produced a consensus.

7.26 pm

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this debate, having sat through two days of the defence debate last October without succeeding in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or the eye of Mr. Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker. It is an extra- special pleasure to speak on behalf of people in Portsmouth on such a crucial matter as the


Column 215

future of the Royal Navy, particularly when we have just heard the news that HMS Southampton is to go out to tender for repair of the damage that it sustained last year, and to be refitted at the same time.

The news that it will be leaving Portsmouth for that purpose will go down like a lead balloon in my constituency, because HMS Southampton was already in for refit from September of this year until November 1990. Some very anxious people will be wondering what is to be put in place of that work which was scheduled by the Ministry to be done at Portsmouth.

The supply of warships, their maintenance and their repair depend crucially on the public money available. We all understand that, and we all understand that we must get the best possible value as well as the best quality of work. But since 1984, with the rundown of Portsmouth dockyard and the creation of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation, the naval and civilian work force have shown great ingenuity : there is flexibility between the trades, financial management and control are sound, and the organisation is running as efficiently as possible. It specialises in the very type 42 work that is required on HMS Southampton.

The track record of the fleet maintenance and repair organisation in Portsmouth bears repeating because it is vital that further work should come to replace that which was expected from HMS Southampton. HMS Newcastle was refitted in 1987 ; the work was completed two weeks early and it came out at £2.4 million under budget. HMS Cardiff was returned to the fleet just before Christmas 1988 ; the work was completed five weeks early and it was about £2 million under budget. At the same time, in 1987- 88, HMS Birmingham came from Rosyth--where a certain amount of work had been carried out--and the fleet maintenance and repair organisation at Portsmouth was amazed at just what was required from those who knew what they were doing with type 42s to sort out HMS Birmingham before it could be returned to the fleet. At present, the work force is halfway through its work on HMS Exeter. Excellent progress is being made and the work is also running under budget on labour and material. Therefore, the news that the planned refit of and repairs to HMS Southampton will not now take place in Portsmouth is most disappointing and will not be well received in Portsmouth.

The results of the Killick report are anxiously awaited and it is understood that the report finds that work at Portsmouth--particularly that on type 42s--is carried out in the most efficient way. We understand that the report recommends a small diminution of the work force but, for the foreseeable future, I am somewhat reassured by what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the continuing major role that is intended for the fleet maintenance and repair organisation. However, a ship in the port is always worth two in the mind of the Minister. As soon as possible, we want some alternative work in Portsmouth to take the place of that which, disappointingly, we shall not have. Of course, we understand that value for money must come first.

The morale of those who work at Portsmouth is crucial. We could easily lose specialist labour and expertise, and we do not want further redundancies of skilled men. We shall, perhaps, need to take on those same men or others in the


Column 216

future when work is brought to the port. In the meantime, we do not want unnecessary job losses which would not only cause unhappiness for the families of these people, but would not make the most efficient use of manpower in the future. If HMS Southampton is not to be refitted and repaired in Portsmouth and no replacement work is found, any substantial further rundown at Portsmouth would be met with blanket dismay. I repeat that I was somewhat reassured by the Minister's earlier remarks, but we need the delivery of some alternative work as soon as possible.

Portsmouth lost the work on HMS Southampton because competitive tenders were sought elsewhere. Therefore, in the future, the Ministry of Defence must devise a method to enable Portsmouth to compete with the commercial yards. There is now enough information to bid properly but, at present, whether Portsmouth is cost-effective or competitive relies on the say-so of the Ministry of Defence.

I believe that it was Humpty Dumpty who said in "Through the Looking Glass" :

"When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

For Portsmouth the word "competitiveness" means what the Ministry of Defence says it should mean, neither more nor less. Portsmouth must be able to compete properly. The port loses work to those who are said to provide better value when refitting and repairing ships of the Royal Navy. By all means let us have value for money, but we must allow Portsmouth to provide that value for money. We shall meet any challenge given to us fairly, and we want to remain one of the prime ports serving the Royal Navy in so many ways.

I plead the case for Portsmouth not solely because of the hundreds of years of fine tradition of unmatchable service to the Royal Navy, but because of the proven efficiency and commitment of the service and the civilian work force to continuing a major role at the dockyard.

The concept of tradition brings me to my second topic--HMS Victory and the future of the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief, Naval Home Command. HMS Victory is not only the flagship of the

Commander-in-Chief but also the flagship of the Royal Navy and the nation. It is the oldest commissioned ship in the world. Many people do not realise that it is actually in commission and not merely a tourism or public relations exercise--although it plays a tremendous role in naval public relations both internationally and nationally. In Portsmouth, emotions run deep over the future of HMS Victory. Why should I raise the matter of HMS Victory in this debate? It has a ship's complement--including the captain-- of about 10 and has about 14 full-time equivalent guides who serve in the Royal Navy or the Royal Marines and show people over the ship, lending it a vital air of authenticity. In addition, the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of those naval personnel when showing people over the ship are germane in helping recruitment and the image of the Royal Navy, which it is so important to promote.

Last year the rumour was that it was intended to give the guides' jobs to civilians and have the ship run by the heritage project at the naval base. I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces who, in his usual courteous way, set out the up-to-date position. Someone has said that having asked for bread we were offered a stone. I


Column 217

would not accuse my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of that, but the letter on the future of HMS Victory's guides contained stony features that were well disguised as bread. It stated :

"In the case of the Victory guides, the naval authorities decided last year that the guide billets would be withdrawn by 1st April 1990 and the outgoing personnel deployed to operational duties elsewhere."

That is a great pity.

We have a field gun crew which cannot be said to carry out a particular task for a modern up-to-date Navy, but it performs an irreplaceable role. As I have already pointed out to the Minister, outside Buckingham Palace we could have civilians in fancy dress on wooden horses, but it would not be the same, as far as our traditions are concerned. It is important to consider tradition and factors that add to the gaiety of the nation, if nothing else. I use the word "gaiety" without its modern connotations particularly so that it may keep its old and much more understood sense. We must continue some of these traditions because they add something to this country's forces which is quite irreplaceable and which no one else in the world can provide.

It may sound as though I am going over the top and one might ask why I am so excited about 14 full-time equivalent guides being removed from HMS Victory. However, it means that the remaining 10 of the ship's complement, including the captain, will have lesser tasks to perform and will become more isolated. The time will perhaps come when people will question what they are doing on board HMS Victory, because they no longer control guides but seem merely part of the tourist project. Once removal of the guides and the fact that they do not provide a vital role in the public relations of the Royal Navy is accepted, a further diminution of the role played by HMS Victory will follow.

That is why I raise the point in this debate and I hope that I can join any rearguard action to keep those guides serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Perhaps we can get the Wrens to help us, too, if necessary.

It is fitting that I should have mentioned Wrens. In my maiden speech in the defence debate in October 1987 I asked whether it was not time for the Wrens to be given the opportunity to serve at sea. I suggested that it should at least be part of their training to be ready for such service, and that that should be a goal for the 1990s. I under-estimated the zeal and speed with which Ministers can occasionally gratify the wishes of Back Benchers. Within a year, in September of 1988, the headlines read :

"Twelve Reservists become first Wrens to serve at sea". The major maritime and amphibious exercise Teamwork 88 mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) involved a dozen reservist Wrens serving in merchant ships--so we are on our way.

Of course this is a sensitive issue : there are practical difficulties involving accommodation and head arrangements. One always hears about the difficulties of toilet facilities if women are to go down the mines or into the ships of the Royal Navy, but we can overcome such problems, given the political will to do so. In the period of increasing manpower difficulties during the 1990s, I want Wrens who volunteer for these duties to be fully trained for combat roles, including tactical signalling, which proved deficient at the time of the Falklands war. Women serve in these roles in many navies all over the world. We may not describe them as combat


Column 218

roles, but combat roles are increasingly difficult to distinguish from non-combat roles. Ships in supporting roles at sea increasingly have to be armed and ready to play vital defensive and offensive roles merely to stay afloat in the water, so I cannot see an argument for distinguishing between the roles for serving Wrens in future-- or for saying that other navies have found that this does not work. I know of no navy that has found that.

We must be much more positive about the future of women in the service. I do not accept patronising objections to women being trained for combat roles ; such objections have been overcome in foreign navies. I do not accept the excuse that husbands will not like serving wives to work alongside men or that wives of serving men will not like them to work with women. These days, many service wives work alongside men ashore, and many husbands of civilians work away from home alongside women. I question the traditional attitudes. Let us use Wrens as much as we possibly can in the modern Navy. Arising out of operation Teamwork 88, I was a little concerned to see a quotation in The Daily Telegraph from a Commodore Brian Turner of the joint British-Netherlands force :

"I doubt Nelson would have turned in his grave. He was something of a ladies' man after all."

The trouble is that, if all sailors have as amorous a service life as Nelson did, we shall pander to those who say that women cannot serve in the Royal Navy because their role is to remain on shore. I have spoken about Portsmouth and some of the wider interests of the Royal Navy. At the head of my list is the future of Portsmouth, which serves the Royal Navy in the wider sense, including the maintenance and repair of ships. I hope to be reassured as soon as possible that Portsmouth will have enough work to carry it forward and keep it in the forefront of serving the Royal Navy.

7.45 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I am sure that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) would not expect me to follow the arguments deployed in his special pleading for his constituency. I want to use the debate to question the possession by the Royal Navy of nuclear weapons, and our possession of an independent nuclear deterrent.

Whenever the Prime Minister or any other Minister is challenged about Trident, he or she trots out the standard reply that nuclear weapons have kept the peace in Europe for the past 40 years. That bland statement covers a multitude of sins. It ignores the fact that millions of people have died as wars have been fought out by proxy in Korea, Indochina, Central and South America, Africa and more recently Afghanistan. It also ignores the fact that there is not a shred of evidence that the United Kingdom's independent deterrent has had any effect on the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about the morality of our possession or use of these weapons. Instead I shall discuss their utility. I say to my hon. Friends, one or two of whom seem to be nuclear fanatics, that before they try to persuade the Labour party to change its policy on nuclear weapons they should carefully examine the lack of credibility in the systems being proposed.

As long ago as 1962, although it took another 17 years before it was made public in 1979, in a speech to NATO Ministers Robert MacNamara said :


Column 219

"relatively weak nuclear forces with enemy cities as their targets are not likely to be adequate to perform the function of deterrence In the event of war, the use of such a force against the cities of a major nuclear power would be tantamount to suicide, whereas its deployment against significant military targets would have a negligible effect on the outcome of the conflict. In short, then, weak nuclear capabilities, operating independently, are expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility as a deterrent." What better description of the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent could one find than

"expensive, prone to obsolescence and lacking in credibility"? I want to mention another aspect of this lack of

credibility--command, control and communications. We should all know that to possess any credibility a deterrent force must meet the criterion that those one hopes to deter understand that one can use it successfully. That is not true of the independent use of our nuclear deterrent, and I am pretty certain that the Russians know that. Command and control communications are complex and sophisticated, for good reason. No one in his right mind would want to unleash these weapons lightly or by accident, because the consequences of their use are unimaginable. So political control of them must be absolute--but therein lie a number of technical problems.

We have no early warning system of our own ; we depend firmly on the American system at Fylingdales and on the Americans' commitment to pass on information. We should not take it for granted that, if we wanted to use the weapons independently, they would pass it on. Although considerable resources have been devoted to increasing the potential firepower and invulnerability of the independent nuclear deterrent by purchasing Trident, little has been spent on updating or improving the communications system for submarines carrying missiles. That is the key issue, and probably a major weakness in the whole philosophy.

Communicating with submarines is extremely difficult, and follows a simple rule : the easier it is to communicate between shore and submarine and the more reliably the message is transmitted, the more vulnerable the submarine becomes. This country, unlike the United States and France, has no TAMACO- type facility for aircraft to make these communications. We appear to be wholly committed to vunerable, onshore-based transmitters. Even low frequency transmitters consist of vast ground aerials that can transmit messages only slowly, while other forms of communication such as long wave, medium wave, high frequency, very high frequency and ultra high frequency require the submarine to surface to receive the message or to be very close to the surface.

The transmitters are extremely vulnerable to attack and to electromagnetic pulse effects. It is not inconceivable that a single megaton nuclear device exploded at 100 km above the United Kingdom would so severely damage the transmitters as to make communication with the independent nuclear deterrent fleet impossible without compromising the safety of the submarines. Where is the credibility of an independent nuclear deterrent that cannot be given the order to fire? Do the Government expect the Trident submarine commanders to decide themselves whether or not to fire?

The Minister has dodged questions repeatedly, but he must answer the question whether he is relying on submarine commanders who turn on a wireless to listen to


Column 220

Jimmy Young on the radio. If they cannot pick up Jimmy Young, should they assume that Britain has been attacked? There is no credibility to the system unless the Government can convince the House and everyone else that there is a way of instructing Trident commanders whether to retaliate.

The Government seem to be well aware of the problem. They have at last committed themselves to building a trial transmitter for the extremely low frequency band. A transmitter at Glengarry forest in Scotland would have some advantages. At least the submarines could stay submerged. It is much harder for a submarine to be identified. The disadvantage lies in the extremely long wavelengths that are involved. The transmission of data is very slow and it takes several minutes to transmit a message of three or four letters. Clearly there are problems with the system that the Government have not addressed--first, how much money will be spent?

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) from the Democrat Bench claimed that by the time the next election came round the Trident costs would be committed. But once the system has reached that stage all sorts of extra costs will arise. I hope that the Government can tell us how much they expect the extremely low frequency transmitter at Glengarry forest will cost. When will the system be operational? The Government, in parliamentary answers, talk about building the transmitter, assuming that planning permission will be granted, in 1991 and 1992. But it would not start operating until 1993. The transmitter would be only experimental. It is questionable whether it could be used or would be merely a prototype and a larger device would need to be built, if the system was to work at all.

There is the question whether it would stand up to electromagnetic pulse effects. There is a danger that most of our radio transmission systems for any system of command and control, and a series of other micro-electronic processes, would be greatly affected by it. I notice that the Minister dodged that question once again last Friday. Perhaps the Minister could explain whether such a transmitter would just communicate with Trident or whether it would have some wider role. There is also the question whether it would cause more damage to the environment than it was worth.

If the whole point of putting missiles in submarines is safety and that they will survive a first strike and make retaliation possible, there is little sense in making submarines vulnerable to attack when communicating with them. It is a bit like putting something on British Rail. It is about the only organisation that does not know where it is going.

Putting missiles on submarines has a useful political purpose. It keeps them hidden from public view and makes it much harder for people to mount protests against them. It bears out the old adage "out of sight, out of mind". The oft-stated reason for buyng Trident is to ensure that British bombs can penetrate the Galosh ABM system around Moscow. The same reason was given for updating Chevaline and Polaris.

Yet this counter-value policy cannot be described as credible. I return to Robert MacNamara's remarks. He has described that view as "tantamount to suicide". He described the effect of such a force on NATO's policy of controlled escalation as follows :


Column 221

"Such a failure in co-ordination might lead to the destruction of our hostage--the Soviet cities--just at a time at which our strategy of coercing the Soviets into stopping their aggression was on the verge of success."

A counter-force strategy for the United Kingdom independent nuclear deterrent is of course ridiculous, given its size. We must ask what it is really there for. The crazy logic of the deterrent theory is that British missiles would be indistinguishable from American ones to their most likely recipients. One suspects that the real purpose is not to deter the Russians but to blackmail the United States and to make sure that they do not withdraw their nuclear guarantee for NATO.

Instead of us having a nuclear commitment to make an impact on deterring the Russians, the policy is designed to make sure that the United States is tied in to giving us a nuclear umbrella. If that is its real purpose, we must make certain that such a deterrent is genuinely independent of the United States. Is there much point, when it is really there to blackmail the United States? We are dependent on the United States for early warning, as received at Fylingdales. Ought we not to have our own early warning system if that is the idea? In fact, we shall not really be effectively able to communicate with our submarines, although that is not stated publicly by the Government. We shall need to rely on the United States TAMACO system.

Again, does that really give us an opportunity to blackmail the United States? It means that we can use the deterrent only with their permission. Therefore, it becomes only a minor part of NATO's response rather than being genuinely independent. If we are really trying to persuade the Americans to commit their nuclear forces rather than to deter the Russians, we must face up to the fact that it might be in the interests of the United States and the Russians to stop us using our independent deterrent.

That raises the question how far we are totally reliant upon the United States for the supply of technology for Trident. We are totally committed now to returning the missiles to Georgia for servicing. I suggest to the House that it is crazy for us to be pouring £9 million or £10 million of public money into Trident when we do not have a command and control system that would convince the Soviet Union that it was genuinely independent. Its real purpose is to blackmail the United States into maintaining a nuclear umbrella. Surely we could do that with a far cheaper system than Trident. We could do it without committing ourselves to a nuclear strategy. We could do better for this country by abandoning the whole concept of Trident and the nuclear deterrent that goes with it. We could save the money to make sure that we have a proper conventional defence force. The way in which the Navy is being steadily eroded has been well illustrated in the debate. Perhaps, better still, we could spend far more money on the education and health services and to make sure that British industry had the research and development that is needed to make it competitive in the world.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will find a few minutes in which to convince me and the House that we have a credible system of political command and control over Trident. I suggest to the Defence Select Committee that it is important for it to ask whether we can produce the missiles to go into Trident. It is equally important for the Committee to ask whether there is command and


Column 222

control over the system. Unless that can be established, the policy has no credibility. We should be far better to get out of the nuclear rat race.

7.58 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I shall make a brief contribution, perhaps somewhat briefer than I had intended, because my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) has already made my essential point, doubtless more eloquently.

My remarks concern the women's armed services and, especially today, the position, training and opportunities for women in the Royal Navy, for the WRNS.

The statement on the defence estimates shows that women as part of the cadet forces have risen substantially between 1982 and 1988, as indeed they have increased in other services. There are many reasons for that, doubtless including the very attractive programme of training and opportunities that has been given to our cadet forces, and on which the Royal Navy and the other services, and the Government, are greatly to be congratulated.

Women find the cadet services attractive because there is little distinction between the opportunities open to them and those open to their male counterparts. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is considerable enthusiasm among women for the cadet services. It is a different story when it comes to the recruitment and retention of women into the main branch of the service, the WRNS, because, whereas the cadet forces as a whole are declining and the women's element is rising, in the main service the women's element is declining, with a minor decline in the number of officers but a sharp decline in the number of service women.

Why, if we can attract young people into the cadet branches of the service, do we fail to attract more mature women into the main service? And having attracted some, why do we have such a problem retaining them?

It is not surprising that in the Royal Navy, as in the other services, many women leave for reasons of marriage or pregnancy or both--that is an insoluble problem facing the women's services--but there is a substantial rise in the number of women leaving either because they wish to leave at their own request prematurely or because, on reaching the end of their immediate contracts, they do not wish to renew. Having let the period of notice run out, they leave. Those last two reasons suggest that women do not find the service as attractive a long-term proposition as we would like. Is that due to the disparity of opportunities between the male and female branches of the services?

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South highlighted the fact that women do not go to sea. I cannot join his enthusiasm that at long last we have 12 reservists at sea. The numbers will have to be greater before we can welcome it as a significant advance. Women in the OTCs can learn to fly and have training at sea, but the same does not apply when they go into the service proper. That must act as a discouragement to women. If they cannot get the same training and adventure opportunities, not to mention the same scholarships--it is significant that all the flying scholarships in the cadet corps, like the sea scholarships, go to men--they will not be encouraged to take it as a serious career option.

Women are more likely to be retained--particularly those who know that in the long term they will leave


Column 223

anyway, to marry--at least in the short term if they are given the sort of training and grounding for future civilian life that will create later opportunities for them. In that connection, a glance at the qualifications that are gained--not only academic but craft, driving and technician qualifications--makes it clear that there is a substantial disparity between male and female achievement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South said, we have declining manpower in the services. Some of that is due to straightforward rationalisation and some to giving certain tasks previously performed by those in uniform to civilians. But much of it is due to failure to retain. It is therefore vital to capitalise on the willingness and enthusiasm of women--as exemplified by their willingness to join the cadets, the OTCs and so on--by making special endeavours to retain them. Not only could they do the sort of jobs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South referred, but they could take part in a wide range of roles.

I appreciate the reluctance of the Ministry to pour resources into training women for roles which could be defined as essentially combative and therefore not likely to be a long-term investment. We are not yet ready as a society to see women in combat roles ; on that score I disagree somewhat with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South, but as he rightly pointed out, there are many ancillary combat roles which involve what might be described as real work rather than simply ground and civilian-type work. If women cannot feel that they go into the forces equal with males, we shall not retain them in the armed services. We are not doing so at present and we are certainly not retaining women in the Royal Navy as successfully as we might.

We must examine why that state of affairs exists and try to prevent reaching the stage when women are as little represented in the Royal Navy as they are in this House.

8.6 pm

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : I spoke in the debate on the Royal Navy last year immediately following the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), which I suppose shows that neither of us has moved up the pecking order, at any rate in the last 12 months. She spoke eloquently then, as she did this evening, but I hope she will forgive me if I do not follow her down the path which she took. Before coming to my main remarks, I wish to make a comment mainly for Labour party consumption, flowing from a statement which was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I want the Labour party conference to change its defence policy in October. Indeed, I voted for it to do so last October.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South does not make it to the rostrum at the next Labour party conference, for if the kind of inflammatory and reckless statements that he make today are made there, I fear that that will bedevil our chance of modernising the Labour party's defence policy.

My hon. Friend made what I can only describe as an extraordinary contribution, on two counts. First--I appreciate that this was popular with Conservative Members, judging from the acclamation with which it was


Column 224

received--he pined for the days when we had a consensus on what he called security matters with Conservative Members and, even more extraordinarily, with our United States allies.

Anyone who imagines that the Labour party can ever again have--if it ever did have--any sort of consensus on security matters with the Conservative Government, with their attitude to official secrets and the security services, and the use or abuse of them, is living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Mr. Ian Bruce : I am surprised to hear the hon, Gentleman's comments about the remarks of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) because one finds when speaking to members of the forces that any of them who have spoken to the hon Member has faith that at least somebody in the Labour party understands what their job is all about. Indeed, the hon. Member for Walsall, South tends to describe himself as a missionary of, rather than a spokesman for, the Labour party. I should have thought that if we needed a consensus on anything, it was to assure the personnel in the armed forces that they have the support of Members in all parts of the House.

Mr. Galloway : I was intending to speak about the armed forces, as I did last year. Perhaps I should remind the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) that he is talking to a former lance bombardier of the Royal Artillery battery II of the Army Cadet Force. I am no "pinko pacifist", or any kind of pacifist, and I pay tribute now, as I did last year, to the outstanding work of the Royal Navy. It happens, of course, also to be a big customer of the major engineering employer in my constituency, which is a second reason for saluting it on the occasion of the Royal Navy debate, but I would do so in any case, as an admirer of our senior service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South made a fundamental error in imagining that there can ever be a consensus on defence matters, let alone security matters, between us and the party opposite ; and even less between us and the United States of America, because, to quote a Communist, albeit a dead one, and an Italian one at that--they are usually regarded as fairly pale pink--without having MI5 put on my tail, if indeed they are not already there, Togliatti said that defence policy is the daughter of foreign policy. If defence policy, as I believe, is the daughter of foreign policy, if we had the same defence policy as this Government, we would have to have the same foreign policy. The chances of that are, I hope, remote, because our view of the world is very different from theirs : they have had to be dragged, screaming and kicking, by the Americans into a perception that the world is changing.

It is because the world is changing that I want to see the Labour party's defence policy changing. I am sure I am teaching my grandmother to suck eggs in advancing this argument to our spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who I know will do the job very well, but I hope that that is the basis he will concentrate on in the Labour party in changing our defence policy, as I hope it will be changed.

In opening the debate, the Minister reminded us that it is 123 years ago today since the Royal Navy outlawed grapeshot as ordnance. At the very first whiff of the smoke detector which was let off behind him, he ducked and


Column 225

bobbed and weaved in such a way as to put in question his steadiness under fire, and frankly, his contribution from then on was downhill all the way.

Sitting through the whole of the Royal Navy debate last year, I assumed that, as a new Member, I was simply not picking up the information which I assumed would be forthcoming. However, having sat through it all again this afternoon and this evening, I have to say that the Minister's speech--I hope it will be redeemed in the wind-up--was bereft of any military and strategic discussion of the reason for the Royal Navy and its role in the world, or of any news at all about procurement. There were some vague hints on procurement, some misleading hints on procurement, and a deafening silence on other important issues of procurement to which I wish to come. Many hon. Members have talked of the Government's complacency over the size of our surface fleet. We used to be committed to a surface fleet of 50 ships, which then became "about 50" ; I learned last year, and it has been confirmed again this evening in information from such unquestionable old salts as my hon. Friend from Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South who seemed to be popular enough with those on the opposite Benches, that in fact our surface fleet is somewhere between 28 and 43.

Even at its high point, that estimate of 43 is not "about 50" ; at its low point it is only just over half of 50. I went to the library to look up the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word "about", and here it is :

"very nearly or not many more or less".

Now, I concede that if the Minister were to say that he was going to give me 50 apples and actually only gave me 43, I would probably be satisfied enough with that not to make too much of an issue of it, but when we are talking about a Navy with worldwide responsibilities, with responsibilities to protect our shoreline--our senior service, in the front line of our defence posture--not to come within at best seven, and at worst a good deal less, of 50 does not qualify by my understanding of the English language as "about 50".


Next Section

  Home Page