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Points of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is a matter of which I have given you notice, and concerns the possibility of your having had any request for a statement from the Ministry of Defence on a wider inquiry into the Colin Wallace affair. Over the weekend, a number of individuals have indicated their willingness to testify before any such inquiry on a wide range of matters relating to this case--far wider than the scope of the inquiries, both internal and external, that were announced by the Secretary of State. Mr. Michael Taylor and Mr. Peter Broderick in particular have spoken out in defence of their former colleague. They have expressed their willingness to come forward and testify on his behalf. Quite clearly, the publication of a book on this matter by Mr. Anthony Cavendish is imminent.

Public anxiety will now be fed by a series of unconnected reports. Would not it be preferable for the House to be told that a proper and wide- ranging inquiry was to be established so that we might clear away the rumour and innuendo that surround this sad business?

Mr. Speaker : I have had no request for a statement on this matter today. We had a long run on it last Thursday.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have informed the House that you have not received any information from the Government that they want to make a statement, but the Leader of the House, who is responsible to the House on such matters, is here. Following what my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) said, I have a quotation from Michael Taylor, a former Army information officer, who said this weekend :

"I can support everything Colin Wallace says and can confirm that the Clockwork Orange operation did include the smearing of British politicians I remember the Clockwork Orange files well as I regularly had to check their location and access control." Further evidence was given by Peter Broderick, former head of Army information, Northern Ireland, who suggested that the smear campaign was aimed at Ministers in both the Heath and Wilson Administrations. Those are two leading officers who were then in Army intelligence and have now come forward with further information. The Leader of the House should respond to those accusations and meet the demand for a full inquiry. This matter will not go away ; the House will continue to press it. We should have a statement, even if it is a short one, from the Leader of the House today.

Mr. Speaker : None of these are matters on which I can make a pronouncement. They are not matters of order in the House or for me, but for the Government.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question Time today we had 75 questions to the Department of Social Security ; there are sometimes 200, 300 or 400 questions, if they are directed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We operate a system under which a Minister can say that he will answer a question together with another. Today, 12 and 16 were taken together, which seems reasonable, but some of the questions are planted anyway and today a Minister said that he would take together questions 6 and 20. Bearing in mind that even

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allowing for some Members not being here today, we got only to question 17, how are we to arrive at a fair system of Members putting down questions and having them answered in sequence? Ministers are able, as they so often want to do, to cover themselves--I would do the same if I were a Minister, which is hugely unlikely--but why should we allow questions to be taken together and keep out other Members who have been lucky enough to come up in the ballot?

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member should make his comments to the Select Committee on Procedure, because it is considering that very matter. The hon. Gentleman is right : those matters should be looked into. The House may have noticed that I have endeavoured to speed up questions so that we can get further down the Order Paper. I regret that this inevitably means that fewer supplemetary questions are called but it is fairer to those with questions on the Order Paper. I hope that hon. Members who feel that they should have been called but have not been will not write to me about it, because I now receive about a dozen letters a day.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am concerned, as I am sure you are, about the manipulation of Question Time by the linking of questions. Every time a Minister seeks to link answers, he or she does so "with permission". Will you, Mr. Speaker, refuse that permission in future, so that Question Time is not manipulated to suit the Minister, often by the use of planted questions way down the Order Paper beyond the point that we would normally reach?

Mr. Speaker : The form of words "with permission" is a courtesy of long standing. It does not mean that my permission has been granted. The hon. Gentleman should make his points to the Select Committee on Procedure. I do not disagree with them.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely the important consideration is that excessive linkage too far ahead is not justified if there is another question slot starting at 3.10 pm or 3.20 pm.

Mr. Speaker : Again, the hon. Gentleman should make his point to the Select Committee, not me.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You heard earlier about the question of Colin Wallace. Perhaps you will also have noticed that on Friday the Secretary of State for Defence sent a letter to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) on the sequence of events arising out of answers to questions put to him the previous day, when you were present. You will recall that the Prime Minister said that she brought the matter to the House immediately and that the Secretary of State for Defence said that he had brought the matter to the House straight away. Yet in answer to my question, he said that the document was first discovered early last year. The letter that he has now sent to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East contradicts that. It says that a document was found in early 1989 and another was found in July.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I know, and the hon. Gentleman can put those questions to a Minister or to the Prime Minister tomorrow, if he is fortunate enough to catch my

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eye. I cannot be responsible for letters sent to hon. Members, although, as a courtesy, I have received a copy of the one to which he refers.

Mr. Skinner : What I want you, Mr. Speaker, and the House to understand is that we were given misleading answers last Thursday by both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. It is not proper to try to cover up the tracks by sending a couple of letters to a couple of Back-Bench Members of Parliament. The Government have a duty to tell the House why and when they misled the House. It is a contempt of the House of Commons.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago, you said that we had a long run on this subject on Thursday. That is correct. You know as well as the rest of us that since then further information has come to light. We are entitled to press the Government for a statement. If they do not make one, may I make an unusual request? I hope that you will not reply too quickly on the matter of privilege to those who raised it. More may yet emerge. Will you confirm that, if the matter is referred to the Select Committee of Privileges, it would be in order to put a resolution before the House to change the membership of that Committee so that the Members who are involved in the affair can give evidence?

Mr. Speaker : That would be in order, but it is hypothetical. I consider all matters, but particularly matters of privilege, with great care. I have yet to carry out further investigations.

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Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Whatever our general view about the matter, I hope that every Member accepts that it is clearly unsatisfactory for us to continue in this way. The only opportunity for hon. Members to raise these issues seems to be in points of order to you. You cannot produce the responses. I am pleased that the Leader of the House has listened to the points of order today. I hope that he will ensure that we have another statement, ideally from the Prime Minister, on this subject and that he will provide in Government time a debate on these matters so that we can fully and properly explore all the issues by questions and answers with the Ministers involved, rather than simply pursue the matter in points of order to you, Mr. Speaker, each day after questions.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : I was going to agree wholly with what the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said. Is it something different that I might be able to answer?

Mr. Aitken : Yes. Through you, I should like to place on record the fact that the unease about the good name of the House of Commons is not confined to Opposition Members. As the Government have nothing to fear from making a full statement on the matter and as it is clear that several matters have come to light since last Thursday, or Friday, could we, through you, urge the Government to reconsider the position?

Mr. Speaker : I am sure that the hon. Member will have been heard. There is nothing more to be said on that matter. We should move on to the important debate on the Royal Navy.

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Royal Navy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]

3.34 pm

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to make an application under Standing Order No. 20, of which I gave you notice.

Mr. Speaker : I should be surprised if the hon. Member had not received a message from me telling him that I could not hear his application under Standing Order No. 20, because it did not meet the criteria of the Standing Order.

Mr. Madden : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that there was some recent controversy about your acceptance of Standing Order No. 20 applications. I submit that a debate in the Standing Committee on the Environmental Protection Bill is no substitute for an opportunity for all hon. Members to express their views on a matter of national importance. I ask you to allow me the opportunity to make my application.

Mr. Speaker : As the hon Gentleman well knows, I cannot give my reasons in the House. The very matter that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise under Standing Order No. 20--that I should grant a debate taking precedence over the business of today or tomorrow--is already being discussed in a Standing Committee. It would not be possible for me to grant such a debate that would, as it were, pre-empt that. 3.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Michael Neubert) : I am pleased to have the opportunity to openour annual debate on the Royal Navy. Before talking about the Navy itself, however, I should first like to say a few words about the developments in East-West relations which form the backcloth against which the Navy continues to discharge its duties in the defence of the United Kingdom and our NATO allies.

During recent months, we have witnessed an astonishing series of revolutions in eastern Europe. Most have been peaceful, but that in Romania tragically cost many lives. Those revolutions are unfinished business--the old order has largely been swept away but a stable, structured new order has yet to emerge. In the Soviet Union we are also seeing great changes where, at least in part, the Government there provided the initial impetus and are now having to deal with the forces that have been unleashed. When 300,000 people march to the walls of the Kremlin, the whole world sits up and takes note. These developments have elements in common. Throughout eastern Europe, the people themselves have been the motive power of change. Theirs was a reaction against massive failings in their societies, but, not surprisingly, there is still no clear vision of the ways in which the political structures of those countries, their economies and their societies are to be rebuilt. The same is true of President Gorbachev's policy of perestroika. The ultimate outcome of recent events is thus still unclear and, while we welcome the resurgence of democratic values in the East and are helping the eastern countries with

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economic aid and encouraging trade with them, the uncertainties that we face mean that our optimism about reducing tension between East and West must be tempered with caution.

We have made immense strides towards greater security in recent years-- progress which would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Senior military officers from both East and West, for example, have just finished a seminar in Vienna where they exchanged information about the strategies and plans of their own countries and the alliances to which they belong. Much of the credit for the improvement in relations between East and West is due to the resolution of NATO, whose determination to maintain adequate defences while offering dialogue with the East has been so clearly vindicated. Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, please note.

The Royal Navy has played its part in this improvement. Last year, for example, saw the reopening of Royal Navy contacts with the Soviet Union. In May, HMS Bristol paid an official visit to Leningrad as part of the Dartmouth training squadron's deployment to the Baltic, and received a warm welcome.

In July, the United Kingdom was host to the Soviet Minister of Defence, General Dmitri Yasov, an event without precedent. During his visit, General Yasov was taken by helicopter to see HMS Invincible at sea, a memorable experience that I had a month earlier. During his time on board, the general saw Invincible's aircraft put through their paces and met members of the ship's company, thus seeing for himself how life aboard a major Royal Navy ship was lived. He was clearly impressed, not least by the morale and professionalism of our sailors.

The Royal Navy has also renewed contacts with eastern European navies. In June, after leaving Leningrad, HMS Bristol paid a visit to the Polish port of Gdynia, while at the same time HMS Achilles visited Rostock in East Germany. Two months before, in April, the Polish warship Warsawa had paid a visit to London. Ship visits have a very useful role to play in lessening tensions between East and West, and they will, we hope, continue.

I turn to the ever-active field of arms control. In nuclear arms control, good progress continues to be made in the Start talks between the United States and the Soviet Union. While recent bilateral discussions on chemical weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the agreement that followed, represent an important step towards ridding the world of those weapons. A further major element in arms control will be agreement to limit conventional forces, and encouraging progress has been made in the talks currently taking place in Vienna. The imbalance in those forces in Europe is the most important security problem facing us. We want to see the Soviet Union dismantle for good its massive capability to mount a surprise attack against the NATO countries in Europe. The Soviet Union, for its part, has accepted that its conventional superiority should be removed. It accepted the figures proposed by the West in March last year for tanks and armoured troop carriers, and last July for helicopters. On artillery, the differences may now be more technical than substantive. However, much work still must be done in Vienna to translate a wide measure of agreement into a clear, firm, binding treaty.

There have been suggestions from some quarters that NATO should take the initiative in maritime arms control. That is not the view of Her Majesty's Government. Calls from the East for maritime arms control ignore NATO's

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continuing dependence on reinforcement and resupply shipping from the United States in the event of war. The Warsaw pact, on the other hand, is a land-based alliance with overland lines of communication. It does not depend on the sea and does not have the same logistic considerations as NATO.

Nor should we forget that the United Kingdom, as an island nation, depends more than most on the sea for its economic well-being and security. Some 94 per cent. by weight of our trade around the world is carried in ships, and on any one day, 300 ships are working in British ports, with the Dover straits probably the world's busiest seaway. We also have an important fishing industry. There are more than 50 oil and gas fields in the North sea, accounting for 3 per cent. of our gross national product and 12 per cent. of our industrial investment.

What, then, would be the Navy's role in the event of a conflict involving NATO forces? Many of the forces needed could be moved by air, but reinforcements are of limited use without fuel and equipment--the bulk of which would have to be moved by sea. In peacetime, western Europe needs up to 1,000 shiploads of food and raw materials a month to sustain it. In war, it would need 800 shiploads to meet military needs alone. So NATO's defence strategy continues to depend, among other things, on its ability to keep open those sea lines of communication.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : Have the figures that the Under- Secretary of State gave been updated in the light of the length of a war that is now anticipated? One is no longer talking in terms of a surprise attack, so would not the figures be different over a longer period of hostilities?

Mr. Neubert : The figures that I gave have no relevance to the length of notice of a war or of the conflict itself. They refer to the needs of this country and of NATO in the event of a land-based conflict. It is to that vital task that a large share of the Royal Navy's resources, along with those of other NATO nations, is committed. We should not forget that the Soviet Union continues to invest heavily in modernising its maritime forces and that the production rates of some classes of Soviet vessels have risen over the past two years.

The Royal Navy has--and will have for the foreseeable future--a vital part to play in NATO's ability to counteract the potential threat that those forces represent. The Royal Navy contributes continuously to NATO's standing naval forces in the Atlantic and in the Channel, and it provides a destroyer or frigate for the on-call force in the Mediterranean, which this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first activation. We also make a major contribution each year to NATO's naval exercises. Last September, 34 British warships and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels took part in the major NATO maritime exercise, Sharp Spear, in the shallow seas. The Royal Marines also took part in a number of important exercises, including their annual Arctic warfare training in Norway and Exercise Dragon Hammer--a NATO amphibious exercise in the Mediterranean.

In the event of war--which is less likely now, but we still have to plan for it--the Royal Navy would contribute some 70 per cent. of NATO's ready maritime forces in the

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eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, and would play a vital part in NATO's strategy of forward defence. It would be involved in the interception and containment of Soviet naval forces well to the north, in the early deployment and protection of the joint United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force to reinforce NATO's northern flank--to which we contribute 3 Commando brigade Royal Marines, special amphibious shipping and helicopters--in the provision of anti-submarine defence of NATO's striking fleet Atlantic, and in the defence of reinforcement, resupply and economic shipping in both the Atlantic and European waters.

The Royal Navy will also continue to have a special role, by virtue of the Polaris squadron, soon to be replaced by Trident, in deploying and protecting the United Kingdom's strategic deterrent. This commitment makes it the only European navy to assign forces to all three legs of the NATO triad--strategic nuclear, sub-strategic and conventional.

The Royal Navy's primary NATO role is anti-submarine warfare, which is crucial both to deterrence in peace and maritime operations in war. The nature of submarine operations gives the aggressor the advantage. Such operations will always be difficult to monitor, so the Navy must remain able to conduct anti-submarine warfare surveillance, throughout our areas of interest, in support of the deterrent in peace and, in periods of rising tension, to alert our forces to the likely whereabouts of enemy submarines before war breaks out.

The primary potential threat remains that posed by the Soviet submarine force. Not only is that numerically strong, but the Soviet submarine is also becoming ever more capable. The most important aspect of this improvement lies in noise reduction techniques. We can also expect Soviet submarines to have effective towed array sonars, and modern cruise missiles will be more widely fitted ; and as submarine performance improves, we can expect decoy and counter-measures techniques to do so as well. Submarine- launched missiles and torpedoes are likely to grow in range and complexity, so we will need more capable air defence and torpedo counter-measures systems.

Submarines operated by nations outside the Warsaw pact are also becoming more numerous and more capable. Sophisticated conventional and nuclear- powered submarines deploying an arsenal of torpedoes and missiles of various ranges could pose a potent threat in almost any area of the globe.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I am happy to hear the Minister talk about the Soviets' improved capability, particularly in the area of sonar, because, presumably, that will make submarines such as Trident, which are of course much bigger than existing submarines, easier to track. Does that therefore not make Trident pretty useless?

Mr. Neubert : We do not come to that conclusion. We have been trying to picture a scenario in which development involves measures and counter- measures, and we are determined to keep ahead of the threat and in technology. That is what I am describing.

We put the highest priority on maintaining an effective ASW capability. Without that, the Royal Navy could not provide adequate defence for the NATO forces it would protect or offer a reasonable prospect of keeping sea lanes open.

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Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford) : A key component of the anti-submarine offensive in the decade ahead will be the Merlin anti -submarine helicopter. Could my hon. Friend give a firm assurance that that is going ahead on track, and will enter Royal Navy service?

Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend has unquestioned authority on this subject. This debate takes place against the background of a report which the Defence Select Committee brought forward on Friday. Will he allow me to answer his question later in my speech?

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of the Soviet submarine threat, will he confirm that there has been no reduction in the Soviet Union's submarine building programme?

Mr. Neubert : I made that point earlier. We are seeing the development of the most modern equipment, and we have to take account of that in our plans for the future.

A high-quality ASW capability is also a prerequisite for the security of our strategic nuclear deterrent. An effective ASW capability can best be achieved by a combination of maritime assets. Royal Navy frigates, conventional and nuclear submarines, helicopters and Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft all work in unison as an integrated ASW force.

If we are to provide the best possible ASW defence, to counter the sustained massive investment by the Soviet Union in its submarine force-- mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed)--and to keep pace with the growing capability of other maritime nations, improvements to our ASW platforms, sensors and weapons must continue to maintain our effectiveness, and I can assure the house that that is our firm intention.

The Royal Navy and Royal Navy Reserve also make an important contribution to the direct defence of the United Kingdom by protecting our coastal waters from the threat of mines, while the Royal Navy Auxiliary Service, the Royal Marines and their reserve help to defend our ports and anchorages and key points. Within home waters, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines also help to safeguard our offshore installations, while the Royal Navy search and rescue service saves the lives of many members of the public each year. The Royal Navy also supports the Royal Ulster Constabulary by patrolling the Province's coastline, and Royal Marines Commando units have regular roulement tours in the Province. While considering the Navy's commitment to the defence of the United Kingdom, we must not forget last year's tragedy at the Royal Marine school of music at Deal, when, on 22 September, 11 Royal Marine bandsmen were killed and another seven injured when a bomb planted by terrorists exploded. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing continuing outrage at that callous act of murder, and deep sympathy for those who have been bereaved.

We cannot afford to overlook the threat to British or western interests that could arise worldwide outside the NATO area. The Royal Navy continues to maintain a presence in the Gulf, the Caribbean, the south Atlantic and Hong Kong. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will, I hope, be able to expand on the Navy's duties and achievements in those areas later. The House will remember, for instance, the magnificent

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assistance given by HMS Alacrity and RFA Brambleleaf to Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis in the aftermath of hurricane Hugo.

To meet that wide range of challenging tasks, the Royal Navy has as fleet of some 200 vessels and a highly capable force of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which we are continuing to modernise and update as necessary. The Government have ordered some 67 major vessels since 1979, at a total cost of over £7.5 billion. That very large procurement programme is clear and irrefutable evidence that we remain committed to a strong and balanced maritime capability, and to retaining the appropriate mix of forces to achieve that : the strategic nuclear deterrent ; a surface fleet of three carriers and about 50 escorts ; retention of an amphibious capability ; the proper combination of nuclear and conventional submarines ; the modern aircraft, weapons and sensors that the platforms need to fulfil their roles ; and, not least, men and women of the high quality and motivation that make the Royal Navy such an outstanding service.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : Can my hon. Friend confirm that, however events unfold in eastern Europe--even if the unthinkable happened and the British Army withdrew from the Rhine--nothing could affect this country's traditional reliance on maritime defence, and that, indeed, those events might reinforce it?

Mr. Neubert : That is undoubtedly true, and has, I hope, been the consistent theme of my speech. We shall need a naval capability as much in the years ahead as ever before.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great advantages from which we have benefited in all that we have done with the Royal Navy in recent years is the excellence of our technology? We have often gained a march even on the Americans by spending less money. One particular advantage had been the sea systems controllerate, which has been especially useful for underwater defence ; it has worked closely with both the Navy at Portland and the Admiralty research establishment.

For the past two years, the staff of the controllerate have been anxious about whether they will be staying in Portland or, in the case of those working with surface vessels, in Portsmouth. Is it not about time that we rewarded those people for doing such an excellent job by telling them that their jobs will remain where they believe that they can do them best--in Portland and Portsmouth?

Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for his constituency interests and for his constituents who work for the sea systems controllerate. I hope that we shall be able to respond before too long with firm plans for the future of the three controllerates, because their work is vital to us.

The new classes of vessels joining the fleet and on order are more sophisticated, capable craft than those that they replace. Our escort fleet is much younger, on average, than those of our allies or Warsaw pact countries. Our ships now spend less time in refit so that operational availability is improved. We are doing much more than merely allowing things to tick over.

The programme to replace Polaris with Trident in the mid-1990s continues to schedule and to cost. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced to the House last week the revised estimate for Trident.

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For the fourth year running, this showed a fall in the real cost. At £9,380 million, the current estimate is, in real terms, over £1.5 billion less than the original 1982 estimate. This fall does not include the large savings arising from our decision to process United Kingdom missiles at Kings Bay, Georgia. The proportion of Trident spending estimated to fall in the United Kingdom now stands at 69 per cent., the highest recorded so far.

Two Vanguard-class submarines have already been ordered from Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited, where their construction is well advanced. We hope to order the third in the spring and to issue the tender for the fourth submarine later this year.

The United States missile programme is also going well. The programme of ground-launched mssile test firings was completed last year. Six successful flights of missiles fired from a submerged submarine have now taken place, showing that the causes of the two early unsuccessful flights have been remedied. The United States Navy is on schedule to deploy the Trident II D5 system for the first time in March.

The vast bulk of the procurement budget goes on the conventional equipment programme. At its peak, the Trident programme is due to absorb less than 11 per cent. of the equipment budget and should on average take up less than 3 per cent. of the total defence budget across the procurement period. It remains outstanding value for money. As the programme progresses, some £4.7 billion has been committed so far, of which about £2.7 billion has been spent. Trident remains by far and away the most effective means of providing a credible deterrent. No other use of the resources to be spent on Trident would provide a level of deterrence approaching it. Finally, it is worth noting that maintaining a British nuclear deterrent sustains many thousands of jobs in the United Kingdom which depends on it.

As the House will recall, in December I announced the order for three more type 23 frigates, bringing to 10 the number of this class ordered. HMS Norfolk, the first of class, was accepted from Yarrow Shipbuilders in November, and is one of two new first-of-class ships delivered to the Royal Navy in 1989.

HMS Norfolk is undergoing an extensive series of first-of-class trials to prove her many new systems and equipments. For her primary role of anti- submarine warfare she is fitted with both towed array and bow sonar. Her anti-submarine weapon is the ship or air-launched Stingray torpedo. Her surface armament includes Harpoon missiles and, for naval gunfire support, a 4.5 in gun. For self defence, she has the first fit of the new vertical- launch Sea Wolf missile system. She has an extensive range of the latest sensors and communications equipment, and a new computer-aided command system is being developed. Another new feature is the combined gas and electric propulsion system. Rolls-Royce Spey gas turbines are used for medium and high speeds, while the GEC diesel-electric drive minimises underwater noise during ASW operations and gives high endurance at cruising speeds. Also noteworthy is the fact that the type 23's complement of about 170 is about 50 fewer than a Leander and 100 less that a type 22.

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The type 23 is designed to operate the ASW variant of the EH101 helicopter and can also operated Lynx or Sea Kings. The Defence Committee published on Friday its report into the EH101 helicopter. I thank the Committee for its report and welcome it. I agree with the Committee's assessment of the importance of this helicopter for the Royal Navy. The programme is now proceeding well despite some earlier slippages and technical difficulties.

We are naturally keen to get the EH101 into service as early as possible, but I welcome the committee's recognition in its report that it would be wrong for the Ministry of Defence to commit itself to production until it is fully satisfied about the performance of the helicopter and its cost. We share the Committee's concern about the original contractual arrangements, which we intend to improve by negotiating a maximum price with Westland for its share of developing the airframe and by appointing a prime contractor next year to be responsible for the overall performance of the helicopter, including all its mission system equipment. Our proposed new arrangements will ensure that, when it enters service with the Navy, the EH101 will be the most advanced and capable anti-submarine warfare helicopter in the world.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester) : As the Select Committee report pointed out, the programme is a year behind and will cost perhaps £1 billion more than expected. Will my hon. Friend say a word about staff targets, which seem to change almost faster than traffic lights? Time after time they offer a windfall to defence contractors and are a licence to print money at public expense. Are there plans to change the way in which the Procurement Executive determines staff targets before development and research is undertaken?

Mr. Neubert : That was an extraordinarily sceptical view of the procurement process. Everything that has been said in the debate underlines the fast-moving technology involved in defence equipment. One must take into account the continuing changes in the threat and the need to counter it. We therefore seek to get the best possible value for money and the most effective operational response. That will always be a matter of judgment, and it cannot be fixed in time, because any major project will take several years to develop. It would be folly not to take account of changes that occur in the interim.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : The Minister completely dodged the conclusion of the Select Committee report that the Ministry of Defence's delay, and indecision and its changing of the targets substantially caused the overrun in cost and time. Does he realise with what sense of deja vu I must yet again say that the Government are doing serious damage to a national product--the Westland helicopter--through this delay and indecision? Will he give an undertaking that the decision to put out to tender the mission systems integration on Merlin will not cause one extra day of delay, given that the type 23 frigate is already four years late? Has he any idea what he is now placing in jeopardy? He is placing in jeopardy serious possibilities of transatlantic orders for the EH101 from the Canadians, Westland's capacity to manage the system effectively, making the best use of taxpayers' money and the defence of Britain's sea lanes, of which he spoke so eloquently a few moments ago.

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Mr. Neubert : If I were one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents working for Westland, I am not sure that I would find that helpful. Such comments at this stage can only damage the company. That is not the Ministry's view of the position. I am sure that the House will understand that when a Select Committee publishes a report it is normal procedure for due time to be given to consider it. Out of courtesy to the House, and as the report is said to be relevant to the debate, I have today given our first response ; a more formal considered response will be given in due course. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman waits for that.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) : The Minister must come clean. Is it not true that when this plane was first proposed its specifications were not tight enough to put a maximum cost on it? I understand that discussions are being held on its final cost, but is it not true that, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) said, yet again the goal posts have been moved? The companies involved do not know what the final specifications are. How can a maximum cost be placed on the plane when the Ministry of Defence has not given a final specification?

Mr. Neubert : As I said, these are matters for current negotiation. There is no question of reaching a conclusion across the Floor of the House this afternoon on a matter for negotiation between the Ministry of Defence and the company concerned. I think that it would be in everyone's best interests if we left it at that.

Our force of destroyers and frigates stands at 48 vessels, of which 44 are available for operations immediately or within a short period. We remain committed to a force of about 50 and we plan to order sufficient ships to meet that commitment. We have ordered three more vessels in each of the last two years, and we hope to invite tenders for a further batch of ships later this year.

The other first-of-class ship accepted in 1989 was HMS Sandown, the first of five single-role minehunters ordered for the Royal Navy. We hope to invite tenders for a further batch in the near future. We are confident that this vessel has the best capability of any minehunter in the world. Her sophisticated variable depth sonar is ahead of any elsewhere in the world. She can operate throughout continental shelf waters and can manoeuvre and maintain station close to a mine in those exposed waters using its vectored thrust propulsors. She has an automatic ship positioning system which is essential to deal with mines under all weather conditions and her computerised command system, Nautis, provides the means of planning the many activities needed to co-ordinate the operation of sonar, ship and weapon systems. Having been on board her only last Thursday, I am very pleased, and not at all surprised, at the interest that has been shown in this vessel by other navies, seeking minehunting capabilities.

The Royal Navy can be proud of these two new classes of ship. Three other new classes have also been ordered by the Government--the Vanguard and Upholder classes of submarine, and the auxiliary oiler replenishment vessel. These five new classes account for 23 of the 67 major vessels that we have ordered since 1979 and further orders of all five classes are planned. I should also mention that two vessels of the Trafalgar class hunter-killer nuclear submarine are being built at VSEL in Barrow and HMS Chatham, the last of a class of 14 type 22 frigates, was accepted from her builders in November.

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We are also now considering tenders for a new aviation support ship. This vessel will provide dedicated helicopter lift in support of the United Kingdom-Netherlands amphibious force. We hope to be able to make an announcement later this year. Equally important to the amphibious capability are the assault ships, HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. As the House knows, we have been considering the results of studies into how best to maintain this element of the amphibious force, either by ship life extension or new build. We shall be able to reach a final decision on this important question only after full and detailed examination of the complex issues involved.

Following our decision to withdraw from the NFR90 project, it remains our plan to procure an anti-air warfare escort ship to come into service at the turn of the century to replace the type 42 destroyers, and we are now considering how best to meet this requirement.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Hertfordshire, North) : My hon. Friend has recently reviewed the major naval procurement programme of the 1980s. Will he reflect on the fact that the two major operational commitments during that period were the battle in the south Atlantic and, more recently, the Armilla patrol's participation in the affairs of the Gulf war? When considering the procurement of these further ships, especially frigates, in the 1990s, will my hon. Friend take into account the great importance of assessing in advance possible out-of-area roles so that this dimension is given due weight, as well as the traditional NATO tasks?

Mr. Neubert : My right hon. Friend brings valuable ministerial experience to this matter. We shall certainly take full account of his point. We shall consider all options. Collaboration has not been ruled out, should suitable opportunities emerge. The House will recall that, in December, I announced that, subject to the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations with the other participating nations, we will be joining the project definition phase of the local area missile system variant of the family of anti-air missile systems, linked to our plans to procure a new generation AAW escort. Further fleet nuclear-powered submarines are planned ; feasibility studies into this future generation of submarines are drawing to a successful conclusion and planning for the next phase of the programme is under way.

We are updating our existing Sea Harrier aircraft, and plan to procure a number of the FRS2 version. Our sensor capability and weapons system will be modernised and improved as necessary and appropriate.

All this represents a continuing programme of major investment by the Government in the Royal Navy. Our policies will leave the Navy well equipped for the many and varied tasks that it has to face. Despite the remarkable changes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, our overall maritime strategy will continue to be appropriate for the foreseable future. The Royal Navy is as necessary today to our peace and prosperity as it ever has been.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : The Minister acknowledged earlier that there have been great changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and that a number of treaties that will reduce the nuclear capabilities of both sides are in the offing or have already been signed. Why does the Minister propose to maintain--or even expand--expenditure on naval forces, when he admits that there is no perceived enemy?

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Mr. Neubert : I have not admitted anything of the sort. The hon. Member cannot have done me the courtesy of listening to what I have had to say, as my whole speech has been dedicated to emphasising the continuing role of the Royal Navy. Maritime forces continue to be needed to contribute to the security of our homeland--the hon. Gentleman's and ours--to provide, deploy and protect our strategic deterrent and, with our allies, to provide vital protection to our reinforcements and resupply in time of tension or conflict. In short--let me spell it out for the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)-- Britain's economic well-being, security and worldwide interests depend on the freedom of the high seas which the Royal Navy is committed to maintaining. The Royal Navy's tasks remain as challenging as ever. Its role will be as crucial as before and its unique contribution to the defence of our freedom deserves the appreciation and support of the House.

4.22 pm

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