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Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington) : I echo the Minister's condemnation of those who perpetrated the horrendous bombing at Deal. The Opposition take this further opportunity to offer their sympathy to the parents, friends and other loved ones of those who were killed or injured.
I shall follow the Minister in prefacing my remarks with a few comments on the far-reaching changes in eastern Europe and the changing nature of the perceived threat in view of those changes. The talks between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, while not producing any historic new agreements, nevertheless showed that relations between the two super-powers would continue to improve.
The changes in eastern Europe have been staggering. The breaking down of the Berlin wall inevitably led to the end of Communist rule in the DDR and raised a whole series of questions about the reunification of Germany. The important and complex question appears to be about the pace of change rather than the principle of change. Change has happened where it was expected and where it was unexpected. During the past few years, Poland and Hungary have been changing. The efforts of Solidarity in Poland had had a profound effect and resulted in a non-Communist Prime Minister heading a Polish Government. There were also changes in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, but none were so dramatic as those in Romania. After decades of rule by the Ceausescu dynasty, the dictatorship fell in just a few days and Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were shot. The uprising of the population was instrumental in achieving a change that hon. Members on both sides of the House hope will lead to a multi-party democracy.
Mr. Leigh : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Boyes : No. I want to make progress first.
This weekend we read in our newspapers of possible changes--I put it no higher than that--in the Soviet Union itself. Gorbachev faces mountainous economic and nationalist problems. A large demonstration was held in Moscow at the weekend. The BBC commentators to whom I listened as I travelled down to London this morning said that the demonstration in Moscow could not be compared with the ferocity of the demonstrations in Romania.
Column 660The changes and liberalisations have implications for the Warsaw pact, which no longer exists as a monolithic unit. At the moment we cannot know the nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw pact. However, we can predict that it is unlikely that the Poles, Hungarians and others would take part in a united invading force. That has implications for NATO.
If there is a major threat from the East, defence spending has some justification. However, if we agree that the threat no longer exists, the corollary is that defence spending can be cut. Cuts have been made in France, Germany and the United States. As the United Kingdom has welcomed the changes and the march to democracy in the Eastern bloc, the logical step should be cuts in the United Kingdom's defence budget. However, the Prime Minister is clearly sticking to her cold war tactics.
Mr. Leigh rose--
Mr. Boyes : We face increases in spending instead of decreases and that does not make sense.
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Boyes : If the Government have a genuine desire to keep President Gorbachev in power, it could be expressed by less provocative military activity. At the moment Gorbachev continues his balancing act, but we do not know how long he will be secure in his present position. Gorbachev has captured the imagination of many people as a result of his statements calling for a more stable and peaceful world. However, he could be replaced by the Yeltsin or the Ligachev wings of the party.
Over the weekend the press reported that the Communist party hopes to loosen its grip on the USSR. The Sunday Times said : "The Soviet Union could take a first, momentous step towards free elections this week when Mikhail Gorbachev launches a radical programme to end the Communist party's monopoly of power." Today's Evening Standard carries the headline
"Gorbachev : It's change or die."
However, there are comments from the two wings of the Communist party and it is obvious that President Gorbachev must perform a balancing act. The Evening Standard reports :
"Mr. Yeltsin told the throng that the party had one last chance' to change or it would be swept aside."
A number of people in the demonstration over the weekend held up banners which, the Evening Standard reports, showed that "the people understood the need for more energetic reforms but expressed concern that the enemies of perestroika had stepped up their efforts.
Many of the banners denounced conservative figures such as Yegor Ligachev."
Mr. Leigh rose
Mr. Mates rose
Mr. Boyes : I make it clear that I will give way only a few times.
Mr. Leigh : The hon. Gentleman is cantering round eastern Europe. We know all about that. Will he get back to the Royal Navy? I will put to the hon. Gentleman the same question as I put to my hon. Friend the Minister, and hope that I will get a similar response. No matter what
Column 661happens in eastern Europe, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that no review is being carried out in the Labour party of its stated commitment to maintaining current ship levels in the Royal Navy?
Mr. Boyes : The hon. Gentleman said that I was cantering round eastern Europe, but I said that I was going to say a few words--as the Minister did--about that to set my remarks into some context. If the hon. Gentleman waits, I will answer his questions.
Mr. Mates : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The situation in the Soviet Union is unpredictable, although I believe that the changes, with or without Mr. Gorbachev, are now irreversible. It is clear that the Warsaw pact will not be reconstructed quickly enough to allow it to attack the West. I now refer to the important point of my speech and the first major disagreement with the Government.
Mr. Mates rose
Mr. Boyes : Opposition Members welcome progress on chemical, nuclear and conventional forces, which were mentioned by the Minister. However, we diverge on NATO maritime arms reductions. Mr. Mates rose
Hon. Members : Give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee.
Mr. Boyes : It makes no difference what the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) is. I shall give him an opportunity to intervene later. I am making my speech in the manner and at the pace that I want.
I challenge the Government's wholly negative attitude to naval arms control. Whether their obstructionism is yet another example of the workings of the so-called special relationship, or whether it is simply the Prime Minister's prejudiced nationalism, one cannot tell. But Britain, which could have a central role in reducing the danger of war at sea and cutting forces on all sides, has a Government who are being as obstinate as usual.
When the Foreign Secretary went to Washington last September to see the United States Secretary of State, James Baker, he was supposedly to explain Britain's position on Soviet naval arms control proposals. He agreed with the United States' position, and the answer was a straight no. Part of the problem is that the Soviets have been insisting that naval arms control negotiations should take place within the forum of the conventional forces in Europe talks. That makes it easy for NATO to say no, as it is patently true that, by including naval forces, we would add enormous complexity to negotiations which, so far, are going rather well. Attempts to trade off Soviet ground force superiority against NATO naval superiority are unlikely to have a positive outcome.
The problem of an inappropriate forum is a convenient cover for the real reasons for British and United States opposition to naval arms control. They simply do not want to give up the power and status that come from having large, capable and influential neighbours. Hawkish naval analysts now say that we should simply wait for perestroika to do the work of cutting the Soviet navy rather than negotiate mutual cuts. That way, they argue,
Column 662the West gets a reduced Soviet maritime threat while avoiding any cuts in its own forces. That view is short- sighted.
If we really want to help Gorbachev to succeed, and if we really want to reduce East-West tension and put an end to the obscene and obsessive levels of armaments on both sides, we must take some bold steps towards demilitarising international relations. If NATO truly believes that Soviet Union attack submarines are a serious threat, why not take up their offer of scrapping 100 of them in exchange for the United States scrapping five, six or seven of its aircraft carriers? At least the United States might then have a say in which attack submarines are scrapped or limited, whereas leaving it to the other side's budget decision can hardly be described as a rational approach to arms control.
The strategic arms reduction talks, which are once again showing promising signs of movement, must still deal conclusively with the problem of sea- launched cruise missiles. The United States says that limits on them are impracticable because it is not possible to verify which are nuclear-armed and which are conventionally armed. That is a predictable plea, as those weapons were deliberately built to obscure the difference between the two versions. The intention was to force the Soviets to track all SLCM-armed ships and submarines just in case they might be carrying the nuclear land attack version.
What of the verification problem? Last summer, scientists from the United States natural resources defence council and the Soviet academy of sciences conducted experiments on board the Soviet Slava cruiser to see whether nuclear warheads could be detected by gamma ray and neutron detectors. The tests, including some from a helicopter up to 70 m away, showed that it was possible to detect which weapons were nuclear and which were conventional.
Last November, three prominent United States physicists published in Science a paper which proposes yet another way around the verification problem. Their solution involved non-intrusive verification, thereby overcoming the United States navy's objection that it did not want Russians crawling over its ships.
It is notable that, as long ago as 1973, the United States observers could tell that Soviet ships entering the Mediterranean during the middle east war were not carrying nuclear weapons, whereas those leaving the Mediterranean were. If the capability existed then, why does the United States say that it does not exist now? Perhaps the answer is simple. The Americans have the technology and they know that the Soviets do not. As long as the United States continues its "neither conform nor deny" policy, that forces the Soviets to track every vessel. Why should the United States navy give up its enormous tactical advantage?
Those are not just super-power questions. An often forgotten part of Britain's maritime forces is the stock of nuclear depth bombs carried by Royal Navy helicopters and by Royal Air Force Nimrods. At the best of times, that capability was a questionable military ability. There are no conceivable circumstances in which British independent maritime tactical nuclear capability could be used to military effect. Dropping a nuclear depth bomb would make our own, as well as Soviet, anti-submarine warfare impossible for many miles around. Modern
Column 663conventional torpedos are just as effective at destroying submarines. The use of nuclear depth bombs runs an enormous risk of further nuclear escalation.
Sir Anthony Buck (Colchester, North) : Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the previous Labour Administration were right to update the nuclear deterrent by modernisation and the introduction of Chevaline without telling the House? Has he talked to his friends? Has Labour party policy completely altered? Does he now say that Britain should never have its own nuclear deterrent? Is the Opposition's policy now completely unilateralist? Has the hon. Gentleman reconciled that policy with his predecessors on the Labour Front Bench who updated our nuclear deterrent without telling the House?
Mr. Boyes : I shall answer the point on nuclear depth bombs, which arose among what seemed to be a series of accusations and questions. I am not responsible for what happened in the years before I entered the House. The disposal of these senseless weapons would be an eminently suitable course. Nor would it be a dangerous precedent. The United States navy unilaterally retired 1,100 of its naval tactical nuclear weapons last April, recognising that they no longer had any practical military purpose. The distinguished admiral, Sir James Eberle, said :
"I have never encountered circumstances where I would be tempted to seek approval for the use of these tactical naval nuclear weapons". Vice-Admiral Henry C. Mustin, former deputy chief of naval operations in the United States, said :
"The concept of a nuclear war at sea is a concept whose time has passed."
Many people complain about the West losing the arms control public relations battle to Gorbachev. Scrapping our nuclear depth bombs could be a way of fighting back as they are militarily useless, morally abhorrent, obsolescent and costly to maintain. What better time to get rid of them? However, there may be a glimmer of light. At the Malta summit at the end of last year, Mr. Gorbachev called for a ban on tactical nuclear weapons on surface war ships. President Reagan's former chief arms control adviser--no faint-hearted liberal--described the proposal as "very positive and constructive". Another prominent figure recently to emerge in favour of cuts in naval nuclear weapons is the former chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe. Before his retirement last October, he was a powerful advocate of increasing military spending, but now he states publicly that a ban on naval nuclear weapons can only be good. Most hearteningly, he admits that his view shifted after a series of talks with his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Akhromeyev, last year and after a series of extensive visits to Soviet military facilities, which showed him at first hand the reality of the changes in Soviet military posture and expenditure. For those interested in how much personal experiences can shake the most solid institutional prejudices, I strongly recommend a reading of Admiral Crowe's revealing personal account of his visits to Soviet naval facilities on the Black sea. This was published in the "United States Naval Institute Proceedings" last October, just before the admiral retired.
Column 664I appeal to the Minister to follow Admiral Crowe's example and reconsider his so far entirely negative policy on naval arms control. The Secretary of State should heed the words of the commandant of the royal naval college at Greenwich, who said recently :
"Given imagination, vision and courage, there is potential for sensible consideration of maritime arms control regimes and advantages too."
That was published in the Council for Arms Control bulletin in August 1989. Many people would like to think that warships on the high seas are a breed apart, somehow immune to changes in land-based military postures. That position is now untenable. We should be working to ensure that we have a maritime policy that is appropriate to the international climate, is affordable, and enhances security. On maritime strategy, I am again unable to go down the same route as the Minister. One of the principal features of current Royal Navy posture is the forward maritime strategy. As the House will know by now--although not by reading Government documents on the subject--the Royal Navy's principal task in wartime is to provide anti- submarine support to United States navy carrier battle groups that will steam into the Norwegian sea to mount offensive air operations against Soviet naval bases in the Kola peninsula. The offensive operations dictated by this strategy are extremely costly. They demand highly complex ships fitted with the most sophisticated electronics, hardened against nuclear and chemical attack, bristling with self-defence weaponry, loaded to the gunwales with ammunition to sustain high rates of fire, and surrounded by an armada of other vessels on, above and below the surface, all dedicated to the survival of the capital ship.
Because these offensive operations involve fighting possibly lengthy battles at sea many hundreds of miles from the United Kingdom, the logistics chain is also massive and highly costly--huge fuel and armaments depots, such as the new multi-million-pound depot at Crombie in Fife, and expensive new vessels for refuelling and re-arming combat ships in the most hostile conditions at sea. We have gold-plated navies that swallow up vast sums of taxpayers' money, line the pockets of the arms manufacturers, and use highly advanced technology which frequently does not work. The disaster of the shooting down of an Iranian airbus by the USS Vincennes was a classic example of technology gone mad : of billions of dollars spent on a system that encouraged the crew to believe in its infallibility--with tragic results.
The other consequence of our adherence to a forward maritime strategy is neglect of our own coastal defences. Not only are the ships not there, since they spend their time hanging on to the coat tails of the United States carrier battle groups flexing their muscles off the Kola peninsula, but even if the Royal Navy spent more time round our coasts the ships that we have now would be quite unsuitable. Nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines are useless in shallow waters, and even the new Upholder class diesel submarine has been designed as a mini hunter-killer, making it unnecessarily complex for coastal tasks.
Fears have been expressed by a number of senior NATO military men that budget cuts in the United States will lead to the United States navy reducing its commitment to forward defence. The Dutch navy chief of staff recently used this argument as a platform to propose
Column 665a greater European naval role in the north- east Atlantic to make up for United States withdrawals. Substituting European forces for United States forces in this way sounds desirable, but we must be careful to understand just what such a proposal would mean. The Dutch navy--like our own--is shaped as much by its historical role in protecting a far-flung empire as by a realistic assessment of the present- day threat. As a result, the Dutch have a navy out of all proportion to the size and international political role of the Netherlands.
Understandably, Dutch naval chiefs want to keep it that way. The all- European force suggested by Admiral Van Foreest would be, in effect, nothing more than a reinforcement of the status quo. He argues so himself :
"This would fit well with United States forward maritime strategy In the event of a crisis, our main task would be to keep the Norwegian sea clear for the United States strike fleet."
What we need is not a change in the nationality of the people carrying out the United States maritime strategy but a change in the strategy itself, in keeping with the changes in Soviet posture and with our own security interests and ability to pay.
The Labour party opposes a forward offensive maritime strategy for Britain and NATO in the eastern Atlantic. It was inappropriate and dangerous from the start, but we must now take account of the effects of massive political and military changes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union on the maritime situation, just as everyone in NATO, except this Government, has been seriously reassessing strategy in relation to central Europe.
Mr. Ian Bruce : The hon. Gentleman makes it sound as though the Labour party is again becoming wedded to what happened when it was last in power--doing away with all the aircraft carriers. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that these capital ships cost too much to protect. We had to call them through-deck cruisers to get away from the Labour party's policy of doing away with aircraft carriers. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, during the Falklands war and in all the other emergencies in which the Navy has been involved, the Harrier air force has been required. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is now Labour party policy to do away with aircraft carriers and with our Harriers? The logic of his argument is that that is how the party wants to go.
Mr. Boyes : It would be interesting to know what the Government--the hon. Gentleman's party is in power and is making the decisions--are going to do about Fearless and Intrepid. The hon. Gentleman should have addressed his question to the Government if he was really interested-- [Interruption.] The Secretary of State intervenes from a sedentary position. He knows full well that his Government have had many years to make a decision about these matters but have never done so.
Mr. Speed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Some people now argue that the impending conclusion of a CFE agreement, combined with budget-led withdrawals of United States troops and the greater warning time now available to NATO of any Warsaw pact attack mobilisation--if we assume for the moment that such an organisation as the Warsaw pact will continue to exist--means that more stress should be placed on naval forces and the forward defence of sea line communications
Column 666between north America and Europe. I wonder whether this is just a rearguard action being fought by fans of the big Navy strategy. In the event of a crisis, our main task would be to keep the Norwegian sea clear for the United States strike fleet. What we need is not a change in the nationality of the people carrying out the strategy, but a change in the strategy itself, in keeping with Soviet posture and with our security interests and ability to pay.
Mr. Cohen : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way-- [Interruption.] He is very good at giving way for points that he knows will be relevant. My hon. Friend talked about the strategy in the Norwegian sea. Does he agree that that strategy can be summed up thus : the Royal Navy goes in, takes on the Russians and gets blown to pieces, and the United States Navy goes in afterwards and does the mopping up? Our fleet takes the brunt. Is not that the strategy that the Government have adopted?
Mr. Boyes : My hon. Friend, as usual employing superb language, describes exactly what might happen in the event of such an incident.
Let us consider this matter in the cold light of day, untrammelled by memories of empire or an overblown sense of the power of the red ensign. War between East and West is less likely than at any time in the post-war period. Every other week, the Pentagon issues or leaks a new assessment which shows what nonsense the idea of a Soviet-led attack on western Europe is--I am sticking to capabilities, not intentions, as that is what the hawks always tell us to do. In those circumstances, if the Warsaw pact geared itself up to attack, its forces would be incapable of sustained combat. There would be a short war, not the long war assumed by the proponents of strong naval escort forces in the eastern Atlantic and a forward maritime strategy. There would be no point in bottling up the Soviet fleet in the Barents sea to stop it sinking convoys en route to Europe with war supplies because there would be no convoys ; the war would be over before the cranes had finished loading them in the United States ports.
I have always believed that a substantial element in the forward maritime strategy, particularly in its United States embodiment in the period since 1980, was a desire by naval commanders to give their sailors more action in peacetime. A navy which never comes into contact with its supposed enemy is one that does not believe in itself enough, is not combat ready and, more importantly, is bored. The forward maritime strategy has brought a great deal more excitement into many sailors' lives. There have been cat-and- mouse games between submarines under arctic ice, intelligence-gathering missions close to Soviet territorial waters and mock air attacks on Soviet strategic bases, turning away from Soviet air space only at the last moment. Much as I respect the Navy and its personnel, the time has come to behave more rationally and coolly on maritime issues, stop the threatening and provocative exercises and dangerous postures and address the possibilities of naval arms control in a serious and co-operative mood.
I shall now say a few words about Polaris. Over the years--
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : Is the hon. Gentleman going to read all that?
Column 667Mr. Boyes : No. The Minister speaks from a sedentary position. I respect the hon. Gentleman and do not expect such behaviour from him. I have not spoken for anywhere near as long as the Minister did. Over the years Ministers and Ministry of Defence officials have issued a number of statements that no Polaris submarine has ever been detected or tracked on patrol. The impression has always been created that Polaris operates in an entirely independent and self-reliant manner, using stealth to avoid detection, rather than relying on other systems such as aircraft and hunter-killer submarines to provide anti-submarine cover.
In the 1988 "Statement on the Defence Estimates", a new role for the Royal Navy appeared : protecting the deployment of our strategic deterrent. In the 1988-89 defence estimates, that role was seemingly promoted to become the foremost of the Navy's three tasks, coming before containment of the Soviet northern fleet and the protection of reinforcement shipping. That was an amazing revelation because it showed that Polaris was not self- reliant but required a major effort by other Royal Navy and Air Force units to protect it. As that is now stated officially in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", will the Minister come clean and say what level of resources are being expended on the protection of Polaris submarines on patrol? It has been the convention that the declared costs of Britain's strategic nuclear forces are limited to the capital and operating costs of the Trident and Polaris fleets. It now seems that we should add some of the costs of anti-submarine patrols by ships, aircraft, and other submarines, including part of the cost of building some of those vessels.
This is a fundamental question : will the Minister explain clearly to the House why the role of protecting the deployment of the strategic deterrent was never mentioned in the annual Statements on the Defence Estimates until 1988, and now stands as the first of three roles for the maritime forces? Has Soviet open-ocean anti-submarine warfare advanced dramatically, in complete contradiction of the United States intelligence evidence which I quoted earlier? Have the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on Polaris refits in recent years failed to produce a boat that can operate independently without fear of detection? As the Minister failed to answer those questions when I asked them in a previous debate, will he provide an answer either in this debate or by letter?
We now know that nine Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarines, including Polaris, probably--I can rely only on what the Minister can tell me--have cracks in their nuclear reactor cooling circuits. The Minister has never come clean on the present position. Information that has come to my notice suggests a seriousness greater than the Government are prepared or willing to admit. HMS Warspite may have a fault that is unrepairable. There are several dangers in relation to the generation of submarines built in the 1950s and 1960s. I faxed a letter to the Secretary of State on 31 January 1990 in which I asked him seven questions, some of which related to assurances being given to the local population because of the possible danger if any major problem occurred while the boats were in dock. The Opposition believe that in view of the perceived seriousness of the problem, the prime importance must be the safety and security of crews working on the boats and the workers at the various dockyards who are carrying out the repairs.
Column 668In his book "Submarine versus Submarine" Commander Richard Compton Hall, MBE, RN said :
"A total coolant failure in any nuclear plant is disastrous and inevitably leads to the melt down of the core. Western submariners are absolutely certain that these safety devices and back-up systems will never allow this to happen. The Russians said the same until Chernobyl."
I do not know whether the Minister who is to sum up has been briefed about the questions that I asked the Secretary of State and whether we can expect an answer to each of the questions. A number of people need assurances about the condition of those submarines. My hon. Friends and I believe that some of the submarines--if they are in the state which I suspect them to be --should be taken out of commission and docked, along with HMS Dreadnought, until the Government at long last determine what to do with such boats.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archibald Hamilton) : I answered the hon. Gentleman's letter this afternoon. That letter should be on the board, and was there at 3.30 pm, I believe. If he wishes, I shall certainly repeat the message in the letter when I sum up.
Mr. Boyes : One of my hon. Friends will get the letter for me, and I shall see what it has to say.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Does my hon. Friend accept that it is discourteous of the Minister to send the letter only today and say that he will refer to it in his wind-up speech? That means that the rest of the House is denied the information in the letter. It leaves us in a difficult position, because if we go on asking questions we shall be told that we shall be given the answers at the end of the debate. It would have been far better if the information had been available to the House so that we could have pursued relevant questions in the debate, rather than muck about in the dark.
Mr. Boyes : I now have one of the letters from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. It is right to read it on to the record. It says :
"You wrote to Tom King on 31 January about nuclear powered submarines. I have been asked to reply.
As I am sure that you appreciate, detailed information relating to the design and operation of nuclear powered submarines is classified. I cannot, therefore, comment on the specific nature of the defect which was discovered in one of our boats except to say that it had potential safety implications ; that the necessary action is being taken to deal with it ; and that, as a prudent precaution, we are inspecting other nuclear powered submarines as they come alongside from their operational tasks.
Against that background I can give you the assurance you require about the safety of the personnel who are engaged in the inspection of those boats which are at present in harbour and of the population of the surrounding areas. I should emphasise that there has been no leak of radioactivity as a result of this defect ; and that we have very high standards for our nuclear submarines both in port and at sea.
I can assure you that the decision to keep submarines at sea on operational tasks, pending inspection when they return to port has been taken in the light of independent safety advice. The Royal Navy's submarines operate within tried and tested safety margins and we regard the safety of submarine crews as of paramount importance. You also asked about early decommissioning of Valiant and Resolution Class submarines. We see no reason for such action. In conclusion, the inspections we are carrying out are a prudent precaution ; there has been no radiation leak or injury to anyone ; the Government attaches the highest importance to nuclear safety ; and our action is part of that policy.
I hope this is helpful."
Column 669I thank the Minister for that reply. My only regret is that I received it in the middle of my speech. If it could be on the board at half past 3, it could just as easily have been available at a quarter past 3. I regret the way in which the Government treat the Opposition in replying to to a series of questions of which they were given considerable notice.
People are worried about this matter. The Minister's letter was fairly bland and did not give the assurance required by Opposition Members and, more particularly, by the population where the boats are docked.
We are equally concerned about submariners. Having read the Minister's letter, I am still of the opinion that some of the boats should be decommissioned and taken out of action. The evidence that I received over the weekend which is independent of the Government, suggests that the boats are not as safe and secure as the Government want us to believe. There are some serious faults in the submarines, people could be in danger and submariners could be at risk.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King) : That is insulting to the Royal Navy.
Mr. Sayeed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I shall write a further letter to the Secretary of State asking for more detailed replies to some more detailed questions.
The Secretary of State made a remark from a sedentary position about Royal Navy personnel. But I am directing my remarks at Ministers. I have as much admiration and respect for naval personnel as any Conservative Member and any Minister. I am not happy with the reply that I have received, nor with the time at which I received it.
Mr. Sayeed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Will my hon. Friend press the Minister of State, either now or when he replies, to give an assurance that the operational power and skill on the boats will not have to be reduced as a result of the faults? When faults were found in civil reactors, it was necessary to run them at substantially below the originally intended capacity. Surely an assurance should be given that, as a result of the fault, submarines will not have to operate at below the originally designed capacity.
Mr. Boyes : I agree with that. My hon. Friend asks an important question-- [Interruption.] The behaviour of the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, ill becomes someone in his position. We are discussing matters that are important to many people in the areas where the boats are docked. It was on behalf of those people that I asked the Secretary of State for assurances about the security and safety of submarines.
Mr. Sayeed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
These are important matters and this is the proper place for them to be aired and for Ministers to answer our questions. We must ensure that we have the full details. I shall write another letter to the Secretary of State. I hope that he will reply a little more quickly than he did to my previous letter.