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This Minister who has just intervened made an extraordinary intervention earlier in saying that we had managed with the Armilla patrol when something came up. However, the Armilla patrol, with which our Royal Navy did a wonderful job but which was a long way from our main military commitments of defending our own shores or playing a role in NATO, occupied a third of our available surface ships. That was an extraordinarily risky undertaking, for if anything else had come up while a third of our surface ships were all those thousands of miles away, we would very definitely have been in queer street. The Government really have to do better on this question of "about 50". If the Oxford dictionary is right, "about 50" has to mean very nearly 50, and that is not what we are deploying at the current time.
To digress from this question for just one moment--this is a barb aimed not at the Government but at the yawning acres to my left, where the nationalist parties might be--I was astounded--perhaps the Minister did not
Column 226see the programme--to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) say on "Question Time" on Thursday night that in the independent Valhalla to which he is committed Scotland will have its own army, navy and air force. As someone very interested in defence procurement, I would have told him if he had been here this evening --I tell him anyway in the hope that he will read the record--what an extraordinary proposal that is.
I am not sure how big an army, navy and air force we are going to have. Scotland has 3,000 miles of coastline, which presumably the Scottish navy is going to patrol. That is going to need a hell of a lot of Scottish navy boats. Yarrow might do rather well out of it, but when one begins to calibrate the cost to the Scottish exchequer of such a navy, not to mention the air force and army, I think the plans of the Scottish National party for independence require a little more scrutiny. Perhaps I should wait until the SNP Members are in the Chamber before taking that matter any further, but I put it down as a marker.
The Secretary of State, who is not with us this evening--I must have missed his excuse ; I presume it is a good one or much would have been made of it- -was at Yarrow, which is my constituency, just three weeks ago. In his absence, I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on his accessibility. He is always ready to meet constituency Members of Parliament with an interest, and always ready to meet the work force too, which is somewhat less usual. I convey to him the gratitude of the work force at Yarrow for his kindness in meeting them at very short notice and in being very frank with them about the business of defence procurement which is now in front of us. When he was at Yarrow, the Secretary of State will have seen the outstanding work which is being done there. It is the leading yard in the production of type 23 frigates. he will have seen the skill of the work force and of the management. He will have seen the new module hall which places it in a strong position in the tendering processes to come. He will have seen at first hand the skills and commitment of that work force.
The Secretary of State will also have heard from them that there have been substantial redundancies at Yarrow despite winning the order for three frigates last year. That is a result of the ordering pattern which has created a dip in the work load, leading to substantial redundancies, including the redundancies of workers whom it will be hard to get back into the yard because they have been dispersed.
The Secretary of State will have seen the extraordinary deal which has been struck between the Yarrow work force, the trade unions and the managers, which gives for the first time in any British shipyard complete flexibility of labour. Outfitters are now doing welding and other tasks which hitherto would have seemed unbelievable and impossible in trade union practice in shipyards. The work force has signed a deal with the management of complete flexibility. The Government should acknowledge and welcome that, as the Secretary of State did, in private at least, at that meeting.
How many type 23s will be tendered for this year? Will it be three or four? Can the Minister assure us that there will be competitive tendering? Will he guarantee that the job will go to the yard which can produce the ships most efficiently and economically at the right price and at the right time? Will he look at the serious problems created by dips in the work load at yards such as Yarrow?
Column 227The Minister talked about the aviation support ships. He said that the tenders for those would be required by July. That is welcome news, but is there any possibility of Ministry of Defence assistance at the design stage? Yarrow would be required to spend £500,000 on the design work required for that tendering process. That gives hon. Members an idea of the scale of the task. I understand that other privatised companies have been given financial assistance from the Ministry of Defence for the design stage for tenders on work as important as that. Can a similar advance be made to Yarrow? Last year there was almost deafening silence from the Government on the NFR90, to which other hon. Members have referred, but at least last year reference was made to the NFR90. I think that the Government conceded that they had agreed a procurement definition, but this afternoon, the Minister did not even mention the acronym NFR90. Given that the Ministry of Defence has put the British FFG90 proposal firmly in the icebox, the Minister has a clear responsibility to tell us when he replies about the Government's current posture on the NFR90.
Are we still committed to the procurement definition? Have we moved on in the past 12 months from that posture? Are we to cater for next century's surface ship needs by building the Euro-frigate in a collaborative project? Will 50 such frigates be built? Will Britain get the 12 that we were supposed to get? What will be Britain's share of the design work if and when the NFR90 project goes ahead? Many people's livelihoods and Britain's defence needs dictate that the Government give us some idea of their thinking on that.
Only two years ago, in Yarrow's drawing office, there were 360 of the most skilled draughtsmen and technical workers in Britain. That number is down to 160 and falling, despite the yard winning the three frigate orders last year. That is, first, because we are not building enough ships--we need about 50 rather than the obfuscation that we have had--and, secondly, because of the timing of the work. Workers in the drawing office of a place such as Yarrow are highly skilled and competent. If they are left, like sand in a tray, to blow and scatter in the four winds out of the industry, out of the city--out of the country, many of them--because of the redundancies they have suffered, their skills cannot easily be reassembled. In some cases it would be impossible to reassemble them. I hope that the Government can announce a procurement policy which avoids the peaks and troughs which have led to that situation.
Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : I believe that during the debate a consensus has emerged from all parts of the Chamber on the need for Britain to maintain a strong, effective and modern conventional Navy. Where the Government differ from the Opposition is over the use of nuclear forces in the deterrence role which the Navy is at the forefront in providing.
I listened most carefully to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He made a well-reasoned contribution, speaking with all the knowledge and experience that he has accumulated over many years, particularly in his service on the North Atlantic Assembly. I thought that we might be able to move to a wider
Column 228consensus, but the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) spoke of wishing to see the Labour party change its defence policy. I must ask--from what to what? I am unclear about what the policy is now. It has not emerged from the debate and it will be interesting to see where it moves to. We shall look forward to having that explained to us.
During a period of peace and relatively little strain in the armed forces, it is always difficult to maintain a sense of tightness and efficiency and, as has been said, the Navy deserves great praise for what it has achieved in efficiency and its capability. The nation can be proud of the Royal Navy, and, more especially, of its reputation worldwide. With the Royal Navy I must include the Royal Marines. They are always included in our debates on the Royal Navy, but not a great deal is said about them. They do a job every bit as important and they do it as efficiently as our service men in the Royal Navy. Conditions have improved enormously and that has been important in maintaining a peacetime force. We can take some pride in the fact that over the past 10 years our ships have been well equipped. A great deal of thought goes into their design for the comfort of the seamen who serve in them. I can say with some feeling that conditions have improved dramatically since the time when I served in a coal-burning ship of the Royal Navy many years ago.
Mr. Banks : I thought that someone might say that, but it is true. The Royal Navy has a special role in NATO and on the international scene. Its role is to guard the Atlantic approaches and secure our supply and reinforcement traffic lanes and ports of entry. Our minds tend to centre on Europe as the central theatre and the flashpoint for any conflict that is likely to occur. That is probably a mistake, because the flashpoint could occur on the northern flank just as easily as on the southern flank, though some may argue that that would be a more likely place for trouble to arise. Nevertheless, the width and scale of protection which the Royal Navy has to maintain necessitates an immense amount of work in covering both the northern and the southern flank and accepting our international
responsibilities on the global front.
I wish to pay a brief tribute to our seamen who man the ships that guard the Falkland Islands. The seas in that part of the south Atlantic are dark, inhospitable and rough, and it is no easy task to spend long periods of time in a ship in those unfriendly seas. I hope that events will soon enable those ships to be taken off station, because we now have an airfield established on the Falkland Islands for rapid reinforcement. Given a more sensible approach from the Argentine Government to the problem of the Falkland Islands, I hope that we shall be able to reach some agreement which will reduce the tension between our two countries.
The Navy must therefore be multi-purpose, with fast destroyers and frigates, aircraft carriers and mine-laying, mine-sweeping and mine-hunting abilities are needed. I do not want to get deeply into the argument about the 50 destroyers and frigates which we aim to maintain--or thereabouts, or almost, or whatever expression we like to link with it. I feel tempted to break ranks regarding the general views that have been expressed today and say that we should have a 55 or 56-ship destroyer-frigate Navy.
Column 229Looking at the size and strength of the Soviet fleet and bearing in mind our role within NATO, I believe that there would be justification for taking the Navy up to those numbers. But I certainly stand by Ministers in their desire to maintain about 50 frigates and destroyers as the complement we need to maintain within our Navy.
The debates on arms control have centred chiefly on ground forces and nuclear forces in central Europe. I certainly would like to see negotiations on conventional armed forces succeed. We should all like to see that. It would reduce tension and enable us to reduce our defence budget.
I believe--this is another factor in our debate--that there may be opportunities for us to take an initiative in trying to bring the Russian Government to the table to negotiate on naval arms and forces. I do not think that it is feasible to negotiate on the basis of maintaining forces at certain levels in different parts of the world, but there is a very strong case for looking at the numbers and types of ships and the armaments they deploy and working towards limiting arms. If there is an opportunity of doing that, we should be very unwise not to take it, but we should do it from a position of strength, not weakness. So until those talks can be promoted we must maintain the strength of our Navy and of our other armed forces in their naval application.
Since the 1970s the Russian Government have been spending about 50 per cent. more, in real terms, on defence. Those are figures which we cannot escape. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) asked why the Russians had this enormous navy at their disposal, which they deploy on a strategic basis. We do not know the answer to that question. It can be used to influence and it can be used aggressively. Let us hope that, through patient negotiation, we shall be able to reach at least some modus vivendi for reducing the numbers and systems that are deployed.
By the middle of the 1990s, the entire Soviet strategic nuclear force will have been replaced since the 1980s by newer, modernised systems. That is another factor which should ensure that we maintain a modernised nuclear stance. I am very pleased that we have mantained the Trident building programme. It is worth recording that--much to my surprise--the estimates of the total cost of the system have now been reduced. It will cost something like £9.09 billion on today's estimates, which is a saving of £1 billion on previous estimates. When we decided to go ahead with Trident I believed that the estimates would prove to be on the low side, and I congratulate Ministers on achieving this cost saving.
How are we to take some sort of initiative over an approach to the Soviet Union to seek to reduce the amount of weaponry deployed by our respective navies and within NATO? I believe that the North Atlantic assembly has a role here in making a detailed study, such as it has at times already undertaken, which can be used by member Governments of the strength and deployment of Soviet forces and in making suggestions for an initiative.
Our Navy is the largest in western Europe. We have the ability to deploy some 200 vessels of all classes. We have spent about £3 billion on modernising equipment in the past year, and similarly in previous years. So we have a very good record, but we must ensure that technology is incorporated in the new systems with which we equip our ships. It is hugely important to have ships that are technologically more advanced in the methods of
Column 230deploying and using their weapons and to rely on the accuracy of those weapons rather than on numbers of ships. We must remember that satellites are a very sophisticated surveillance technique and will make a very great difference to the way in which ships can hide from the threat of opposing ships. I do not think that there is any doubt of our ability to use this technology, because the people serving in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines have the necessary skills. The concept of a NATO frigate is certainly in the doldrums. I regret that, because the object of the exericise is to produce a standard vessel which can be used by all NATO navies, and that is something we should aim for. The specification of that vessel is the current difficulty and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will give some thought to the matter and to what we can do to propel the project forward. The purpose of NATO is to ensure that we work more closely together, and if we build a common frigate, at a lower cost, with all the advantages of interoperability of equipment, which we all operate and understand, we shall be better equipped.
Mr. Sayeed : I am certainly surprised that my hon. Friend believes the project to be stalled. Perhaps he has some other information, but I had understood that it was in the project definition stage, that the Government had agreed that it should go ahead, that it was being discussed in Europe and that we should expect later this year some findings from the group that is looking at the project.
Mr. Banks : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because the most recent information that I have is that there is still great difficulty in deciding on the project definition. I hope that the matter will be clarified.
Finally, the role of the reserves provides important insurance, and I much appreciate the new numbers for the service that have been included in the complements. They are to be welcomed. I particularly welcome the advertisement in The Times today, which lists a number of companies that give active support in enabling people to serve as reservists. It is the first time that I have seen such an advertisement. The number of companies that support our reservists is impressive. We should not under-estimate the value of the reservists' work or the enormous reliance that we should place on them in time of war.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : I am puzzled by the questions on Labour party policy that have been put by right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. Our defence policy is roughly the same as that of Canada. It is that we shall remain members of NATO but refuse the right of any country to have nuclear weapons on our soil. I have not noticed the Prime Minister or Government supporters criticising Canada--or Norway, which was visited by the Prime Minister without any criticisms being made of its defence policy. I am not sure what is meant by modernising Labour's policies. They are already extremely modern, and are aimed at removing the threat of nuclear annihilation from our planet--which is the most morally sound and modern policy one could have.
Getting rid of Trident, which costs about £10 billion, would allow us to meet the claims made by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House for an adequate conventional surface fleet. We could also use some of that
Column 231money to improve the National Health Service and to replenish the wilting coffers of local authorities, which are hard- pressed to provide adequate services because of central Government cutbacks. Schools in my constituency could be rebuilt, and if Trident were cancelled and its funds transferred elsewhere, the effects of capital expenditure cuts of local authorities could be immediately remedied. The Government's policy of possessing nuclear weapons is also puzzling. Currently, the Government are breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, and they are right to do so. They are taking that action because of Iran's threat against only one person. However, the Government, through their deployment of Polaris and their expensive increase in nuclear firepower in the form of Trident, threaten the lives of millions of people. That is a curious moral juxtaposition. The Government are outraged at a threat to the life of one person, but maintain the threat of mass extermination with a cool indifference that is breathtaking.
I remind the House that even Polaris, which is to be phased out, offers each submarine that carries it more firepower than was used by both sides in the 1939-1945 war. Nevertheless, the Government are spending billions of pounds to extend that firepower. As I pointed out to the Minister earlier, not only is £250 million being spent annually on maintenance, but such expenditure deters supporters of the United Nations nuclear non- proliferation treaty. The Minister disagreed with me, but then had to correct himself, when he suggested that the United Kingdom does not support that treaty. We are signatories to it. One hundred and thirty three non- nuclear nations have said--this is an implicit part of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty--that nations that do not possess nuclear weapons undertake not to manufacture or deploy them, provided that the nuclear nations which are signatories to the treaty--and the United Kingdom is one of them--negotiate in good faith to remove their own nuclear weapons.
The only country that is in breach of that,which is ratting on its international obligations, and which is breaking its word to at least 133 nations--and to the two nuclear nations of the Soviet Nation and the United States--is the United Kingdom. That is what the Government are doing. As we are bound by that treaty to negotiate away our nuclear weapons, we should not be embarking on the expensive folly that is the £10 million Trident.
When we get rid of Trident, we shall join other NATO countries that will not tolerate nuclear weapons on their soil. Such a thing is not so startingly radical that Conservative Members should raise their eyebrows. Rather, I am a little startled that some of my own party raise their eyebrows at such a modest proposal, which is practical, sensible and morally superior. It happens to be wrong to threaten to exterminate civilisation on a scale that would make Hitler and Pol Pot put together look like boy scouts. I repeat my argument. Given the Minister's glazed look, perhaps I may spray it on his eyeballs. Each Polaris submarine carries more firepower than was used by both sides during the 1939-1945 war.
Ultimately, the Government must be prepared to use that deterrent, because otherwise it is no deterrent. It is an interesting question to put to the Government as to
Column 232whether they are only pretending about using the nuclear deterrent, or are serious. The Government will say, of course, that they are serious. It is a highly immoral situation, and nothing on earth will persuade me that the deployment of nuclear weapons is a moral or justifiable act.
In case the Minister suggests that the nuclear balance is such that Britain must negotiate from a position of strength--and increase its strength from Polaris to Trident, whose firepower can be as much as 10 times greater--I draw to his attention page 230 of the current volume published by the Institute of Strategic Studies, headed "The Strategic Nuclear Balance". That reveals that the total number of launchers deployed by the United States under the strategic arms limitation talks is 2,002, whereas the number deployed by the Soviet Union is 2,503. It may be thought that the Soviet Union has more launchers, but Soviet technology is not as good as that of the United States, so Russia does not MIRV its nuclear weapons as effectively as the West does. As the Minister will know, the figures for the United States do not include existing launchers on Polaris or projected launchers on Trident.
The figure given for the number of nuclear warheads deployed by the United States under SALT is 14,637, but for the Soviet Union it is only 11,694. That means that the Soviet Union has fewer than the United States and the United Kingdom, which are consequentially already negotiating from a position of strength. But apparently, we are still to increase our nuclear firepower by as much as 10 times, to negotiate from a position of strength. That does not make much sense.
If one redefines nuclear capacity under the strategic arms reduction talks- -START--one finds that United States' warheads total 9, 789, while those of the Soviet Union number 10,595. As the Institute for Strategic Studies points out, the actual bombing capacity of both sides is greater than that- -10,585 warheads in the case of the United States, as opposed to 10,455 in the case of the Soviet Union. But that does not include Polaris.
So, on every conceivable count, the case for getting rid of nuclear weapons is all-powerful. It will revive the United Nations nuclear non- proliferation treaty and the wilting belief that the United Kingdom Government are going to do something about it--and they are signatories. It will release massive resources for the things that people need and want. They do not want extermination, as they have shown over the years by continuous demonstrations, campaigns and expressions of concern. I will argue this case with any Tory Minister or Back Bencher on any public platform he wants to provide. The truth is that, after a couple of years of arguing the case, Tory central office told Conservative Members not to engage in the debate because they were losing, because the case is so overwhelmingly powerful.
Mr. Cryer : When questioned about their belief in Mr. Reagan, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev, an overwhelming majority put greatest faith in Mr. Gorbachev. In that respect they line up with the Prime Minister, who believes that Mr. Gorbachev is an outstandingly "bold and
Column 233courageous leader"--they are her words. Why should we marshal all this massive nuclear power against a nation that has the admiration and support of the Prime Minister--so much so that when he had five minutes at Brize Norton, for refuelling, she rushed out to the tarmac with a cup of tea and a bun? This was to ingratiate herself with a man because of whose threat we are spending enormous sums. Either she is schizophrenic, or she believes he is a bold and courageous leader. Actually I believe the former and it makes me apprehensive that she has the nuclear keys around her neck.
I want to conclude because there is someone else wanting to speak and in any case I do not want to be too controversial about this issue. The fact of the matter is that we have in the services personnel who are trained and who can be called upon to use the keys to fire nuclear weapons. Whether they do so is another point. Frankly, I doubt whether they would. Nonetheless, we have those people, and we have in the Government people who can unleash this massive firepower and have their instructions so to do.
I think that we ought to give the personnel in the armed forces some say in the organisation and in what goes on in those forces. Since nearly all Tory Members are absolutely besotted by the Common Market, we should take a leaf out of the book of some other Common Market countries and give the right of association to members of the armed forces--in this case, the Navy. In 1984 there was a report of the European Assembly--PE 84688/final/annex 2--in which the service men of a number of nation states were given the rights of professional organisations. They are able to be consulted but have no negotiating rights. The states were Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark, which is a loyal member of the EEC, with full negotiating rights.
The document points out that, in the Netherlands,
"as in the federal republic of Germany, officials and servicemen are not entitled to take part in negotiations. However the association must be consulted when the legal status of servicemen is affected by ministerial rulings etc."
That exactly fits the circumstances of being required to carry out orders to embark on a policy of mass extermination.
"A central consultative committee has been set up for this purpose with the Secretary of State as chairman. It meets twice a month and discusses all legal conditions and provisions which affect servicemen and the policies, guidelines and general principles of the personnel programme. There are subcommittees dealing with matters relating to the army, navy and air force which meet once a month."
The document goes on to say :
"There is freedom of the press including the right to distribute broadsheets."
If the Governments are so sure of their case why do they not adopt the policy of the Netherlands and allow broadsheets to be distributed in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force?
"There is no right to strike, but soldiers in uniform may stage demonstrations when they are not on duty."
In the Federal Republic of Germany,
"The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions is guaranteed to everyone and to all trades, occupations and professions The right to form associations is therefore a fundamental right under the constitution. This right may not be restricted for soldiers by laws concerning military service". In Luxembourg, service men
"are allowed to organise or join non-political unions. The majority are members of the Syndicat professionele de la force publique, which is part of the Confe deration ge ne rale de la function publique."
Column 234Lastly, in Denmark,
"Servicemen therefore have the same negotiating rights and the same right to conclude agreements as all the other government employees. There are various groups of professional organisations for serving officers, reserve officers and serving soldiers. These associations negotiate on general pay and working conditions with the Minister of Defence. They voluntarily renounce the right to strike."
If these rights are good enough for other EEC member states--and we are continually being told that there is a lot in respect of which we have to align ourselves with the EEC--why not give these rights to our service men and women, whom both sides in this debate have praised, and on whose shoulders such a heavy task has been placed as a result of the mistaken, befuddled, immoral policies of the Government? 8.58 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) who, by gabbling his words at the end, gave me a little time to speak. I must admit, however, that I should have preferred to hear more from the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I hesitate to praise the hon. Gentleman, because he may end up being deselected. However, I have to say that when listening to the hon. Gentleman one gets the impression that he has actually studied the subject and understands what it is about. He makes some extremely logical and sensible suggestions, to which I think the House would do well to listen.
Last year I had the wonderful opportunity to be the guinea pig on the new armed forces parliamentary scheme set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who took a few years to persuade Ministers and others of the good sense of getting Members of Parliament out with the armed forces to learn at first hand, at the sharp end, what the forces were all about. Although I spent 40 days with them last year I am not suggesting that I am an expert, but at least I understand the questions that should be asked in the armed forces about what we are doing.
I pay tribute briefly to the whole company of HMS Newcastle, the type 42 destroyer on which I was looked after for several days. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has just left, because I agree with him that consulting everyone in the armed forces--I know that such consultation takes place informally--gives an excellent idea of what they really think. Morale in our forces, from the lowest rank to the highest, is second to none, and those people wish to express their opinions for the good of the service, not for their own good.
I pay tribute also to the men and women at the royal naval base at Portland and on HMS Osprey, who have looked after me on many occasions. They, of course, are based in my constituency. I also have the honour to represent many of those who work at the Admiralty research establishment who back up the work of the Royal Navy, and the sea systems controller and others involved in procuring capital equipment.
Let me deal first with manpower. The Royal Navy and all the country's forces--indeed, all its industries--realise that they are sitting on a time bomb. The birth rate has fallen enormously, and there will be considerable competition for the good-quality manpower, of the right age, that we need to join our forces. I can certainly say that
Column 235I have worked in no service or industry with such good-quality manpower at its call, and I believe that we must think carefully about the retention of staff.
The message getting through to the Government seems, unfortunately, to be "Let us put up salaries to retain staff." People's main worry, however, concerns the amount of shore leave that they will be given in which to see their families. It was interesting to hear two of my colleagues mention the possibility of more jobs being changed so that they are done by Wrens. That, unfortunately, would mean fewer shore billets and less leave. Unless we decide that women should go into combat zones and perform combat duties, we would, I feel, be foolish to do away with shore billets.
My overall impression from talking to people in the service is that we seem to have the idea that in the armed forces, particularly the Royal Navy, we are training every man jack to become First Sea Lord or Chief of Defence Staff. Constant training and retraining means that almost everyone has less than 12 months' experience. In high-technology posts the average length of experience is often only a year, which is not sufficient. Once someone has acquired good expertise in one job he is promptly swapped into an entirely different job. We should be trying to retain that knowledge. I know that variety is necessary if people are to remain interested in their jobs, but I think that we have gone too far in the wrong direction. Having been on Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Navy vessels, I feel that there is a difference of philosophy on training. Accidents happen with high-capital equipment : on HMS Southampton a bit of bad driving ended up with a vast amount of equipment going almost to the bottom of the sea. Whoever is on the bridge at any one time may have little sea experience, and we still cling to the idea that for 24 hours a day, week in week out, one man is ultimately responsible for running a ship.
Out at sea, as I was for a fortnight, the captain of a vessel can often be seen becoming more and more tired. Is that the right management philosophy on board ship? The captain should be able to have a proper rest so that he can think clearly. During a meal or conversation in the captain's cabin a message may come over the Tannoy : a junior officer is on the bridge and wants to know whether to steer left or right. It is amazing that our captains are able to make decisions in such circumstances, and to be constantly aware of what is happening to the ship--to know from the sound of the air conditioning whether there is a fire problem, for instance. We should look carefully at how we utilise our manpower.
The Navy seems to vacillate between carrying out repairs on shore and having enough equipment to do so on board ship. I have been on a number of vessels much of whose equipment could not be repaired because the right spares were not available. Perhaps there was one spare circuit board. Often, having grabbed a circuit board and popped it into a piece of equipment, someone will find that it is a circuit board that was sent back three months ago with a spurious fault. The repair people did not find the spurious fault and it was still there when the circuit board came back.
We have heard much about the number of ships in the Royal Navy. Having been to the conference a week ago to which the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill)
Column 236referred, I am a little concerned about what we are told by the experts and whether the story we are given in the "Statement on Defence Estimates" is the story that we should believe. What concerns me more is not that Back Benchers are given a spurious story, but that Ministers are not given the correct story. When one hears defence analysts from academic and defence backgrounds talking about the Royal Navy and the American navy versus the Russian forces, one receives a wholly different picture.
Mr. Frank Cook : I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, in developing his theme, would care to comment on the view expressed by Dr. Robert McGeehan, the spokesman for the Pentagon, at the official seminar for opinion leaders at the NATO defence college in October last year in Rome. He said that the tacticians and military strategists should deprive elected politicians of the best intelligence--meaning information--and that it should be kept away from politicians because of the way in which they had abused it in the past. Will the hon. Gentleman express an opinion on what kind of democracy that would be?
Mr. Bruce : That would be a threat to democracy and it is important for us, as Back Benchers, to harangue Ministers constantly and to ask whether they really have the facts. It may be that we do not want certain facts to go into the public domain, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that the captains of our vessels and even people within the higher echelons of the forces have information kept from them. The story of the 50 or thereabouts escorts is a moveable feast. The subject is constantly being churned around and as long as it is moved around and people are not allowed to focus, it will be difficult to make decisions. In my year with the Royal Navy, I have felt that the Ministry of Defence, Ministers and the people in charge have not necessarily had the right information. I shall do my best to ensure that they and all of us have that information.
The debate about the number of ships misses the point to an extent. The number of ships does not matter unless we define their role first. The question of 50 or thereabouts escort vessels is a sacred cow. If one goes out on an escort vessel and says to the captain that he has 200 people under his command and that the ship can defend itself, and if one then asks, "What do you have within the vessel to sink anybody else?", one finds constantly that surface vessels, in particular, are sent to sea to defend themselves and have little offensive capability.
We have gone away from the debate that we should be having about surface vessels versus submarines. We should be considering the role that we expect our escort vessels to play within the Norwegian sea and we should ask ourselves the correct question about whether they are a survivable force or the best force. I believe that if there is money to be spent either on submarines or on surface vessels, the hunter-killer submarine must come out ahead of surface vessels. I spent only two days with submarines in the north Atlantic. On exercises, HMS Illustrious was sunk with the greatest of ease. Submarines are credible machines of war in the conventional sense. When I consider our frigates and destroyers, I question whether they have much firepower in a NATO role. We have to examine carefully what we use the conventional Navy for out of area. We have a strong role out of the NATO sphere. Since the end of the second world war,
Column 237there has been an enormous development in what we have had to do. We must ensure that the escort ships have a credible role out of area in the conventional sense--not that they are protecting themselves against the incredibly sophisticated missile systems that Russia could send at them, but that they have more firepower to go into Third world areas where there may be lots of bush fire wars in the next 20 or 30 years.
Almost all service men who have had guns fired at them have been given a campaign medal. In Armilla we have a group of people who have been steaming up and down what are probably the most dangerous waters in the world for almost a decade under incredibly bad conditions. Because no one has fired at them and because they have had a peacekeeping role, we seem to have forgotten that they should be recognised in the normal way. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will make a recommendation through the normal channels for a campaign medal for those who have served in the Armilla patrol.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State would be surprised if I did not mention the sea systems controllerate. Our capital equipment procurement needs to be improved. Many people in my constituency, and in Portsmouth and Bath, are committed to doing a good job for the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, for years we seem to have been writing reports about reports about reports. For the last 18 months we have been locked into a debate about the red herring of centralisation. That will probably continue for three more years unless a decision is made to cancel collocation and to get the three sites working efficiently for the good of the Navy so that the staff can get on with the good job that they are doing.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) told us that the new SLD defence policy was to retain Trident in service. That will come as a considerable shock to many councillors in my constituency who are ardent supporters not only of his party but of CND. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). Many of us are not certain where Mr. Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost are taking us. Now that NATO for the first time will face battle-hardened troops as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the Royal Navy's nuclear deterrent is more important than ever.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for allowing me to visit the Royal Navy's hydrography department at Taunton. I look forward to visiting Northwood tomorrow morning. I particularly enjoyed my trip in a nuclear submarine. My visit to the hydrography department was very interesting. It was everything that I was led to believe it would be.
However, there are matters of concern to which I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend. There has been considerable discussion about aggregate dredging and seabed depletion. I understand that it is part of the hydrography department's duty to advise the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on territorial limits and the Crown Commissioners on seabed surveys. The issuing of licences in that respect needs to be tightened considerably. I am pleased that HMS Gleaner is working currently in my constituency and that coastal surveys are being conducted.
I noted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) saw in use on a Royal Navy ship a chart
Column 238dated 1908 of the north Norway coast. However, I am surprised to find that the commercial interests in hydrography and chart making have to be filtered through to the Department of Transport as a matter of priority. While much has been done in the Hydrographer's department to make it more commercial and more enterprising, I believe that it could explore many more avenues. It has a number of original charts, some of them going back to the days of Captain Cook. If it was removed from a cash-limited budget, I believe that it could venture into areas of commercialism that would produce a considerably enhanced income.
I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that he explores the requirement for electronic charts that would be of considerable use not only to yachtsmen, but to merchant sailors throughout the world, because they would solve the problem of having to update manually the existing chart service.
I am puzzled to know why the meteorological centre at Bracknell can put its information directly into shipping broadcasts, yet navigational warnings cannot be promulgated by navtex direct from the Hydrographer's department at Taunton. I hope that my hon. Friend will seriously consider that matter, especially as we are still issuing daily navigation warnings in printed form that must consume a considerable amount of money, expense and effort.
I should like to record my appreciation of the reception given to me by the Hydrographer's department and the way in which it answered my many questions. I hope that at least part of its functions might yet be lifted from the cloying hand of the Treasury and be created into an agency. After all, after 1990 the Navy will no longer have to use the Property Services Agency, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered the position of the teams of divers and engineers whom the Department of the Environment currently maintain for the inspection of Navy underwater structures. Will the Minister continue to use that service in-house, or will he put it to an outside agency?
Having Hifix in my constituency, I hope that I may have the Royal Navy as an ally for the replacement of the Decca chain with the Loran C system, in addition to the new geosatellite system which, of course, is once more back on its way after the Challenger space disaster. Today's news makes my concern about the GEC-Siemens bid for Plessey especially topical. The £1 billion Spearfish programme has been open to competition, and it is only Plessey which is offering any serious competition in the market. Should it be taken over by GEC, that competition would be removed.
As my hon. Friend will know, Plessey has succeeded in beating GEC with its bids for naval radar, and the 996 has been an especially successful naval radar. I understand, however, that when West Germany requested information on this radar system, it took two years to obtain the permission, which was then only given for an outline specification. Should Siemens be successful in bidding for Plessey, that would beg two important questions--one of national security and the other of competition.
Of course, on the Isle of Wight we have the only working model of a non- rotating radar MESAR system, which I understand has some considerable potential for naval purposes.
I am pleased to participate in this, my first debate on the Navy, having in my constituency at East Cowes the site of
Column 239the first naval college, where I believe our much loved and sorely missed Lord Louis Mountbatten embarked on his naval career. On the other side of the river, we have the only yacht club in the United Kingdom to fly the white ensign.
I conclude by telling my hon. Friend how much we, as an island community, look forward to the arrival of the royal yacht and the guardship at Cowes week every year. If any hon. Member ever doubts the benefit of the Royal Navy goodwill visits, just let him speak to any of my constituents. I ask my hon. Friend to send a signal to the fleet to tell it how welcome it will be again this year at Cowes. I hope, too that HMS Sandown may eventually visit Sandown, Isle of Wight.