Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Cohen : My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the safety implications of nuclear reactor faults. Will he take

Column 670

this opportunity to ask the Minister of State why, if there is no problem--as he stated in his bland reply to my hon. Friend--so many of the submarines have returned to port? There must be a reason. According to the Government's own standards, they are leaving the country defenceless. If that is not the case, the submarines were no use in the first place. Does he agree that we must be given a reason why so many vessels returned to port?

Mr. Boyes : Yes. I am sure that the Minister has noted my hon. Friend's point, and that he will answer it.

Mr. Sayeed : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boyes : No, I want to conclude now. I understand from a Conservative Whip that many Conservative Members wish to speak in the debate. I shall take no more interventions from either Conservative or Opposition Members.

I wish to make several points about changes in the Soviet navy. I have outlined some of the reasons why there is a clear need for a change in maritime strategy. Perhaps it is most important to consider what has happened to Soviet naval forces. Again, last year's Statement on the Defence Estimates was no help. Of rather more value was last year's edition of "Soviet Military Power", the Pentagon's annual glossy booklet, usually designed to boost congressional support for a higher defence budget. I draw the attention of the House to some of the highlights of the booklet on Soviet maritime forces :

"20 major Soviet Navy surface combatants have been scrapped since 1987, and only a few of these have been replaced Backfire bombers have finally been deployed with the Soviet Northern Fleet, more than ten years after the RAF was predicting their imminent appearance off the north of Scotland ; Soviet naval activity outside home waters has declined 15 per cent. since 1985. Warsaw Pact methods for replenishment at sea are slow and primitive', such that major surface ships could not fight for prolonged periods ; production rates for the latest surface ships and submarines have declined." Before Conservative Members tell me that the Soviet navy is smaller and more capable and efficient as a result, I shall quote from page 111 of "Soviet Military Power" ;

"Trends for the last five years have favoured NATO's naval forces. The Pact navies have been growing smaller, as fewer but more capable ships replace older models. NATO naval forces, however, have maintained their size. They also have been upgraded significantly in antisubmarine warfare, antisurface warfare and air defence capability. NATO navies also have engaged in integrated training exercises to improve their ability to conduct combined operations. The trend for the next five years will likely see NATO maintain its quantitative and qualitative edge in naval forces."

That is not just an American view. In the 1988 Statement on the Defence Estimates, it was grudgingly admitted that Soviet out-of-area deployments had declined over the past two years, but that was explained purely as a measure to make the Soviet Navy more operationally effective. In the small print, however--always worth reading in documents designed mainly for public relations--we find that Warsaw pact major surface warship production has been running at half the rate of NATO's, not counting France and Spain which have significant warship building programmes. The rate of production of attack submarines has been almost identical in East and West over the past 10 years, and production of the Soviet Union's newest nuclear-powered attack submarines was "below levels previously sustained". Those statistics are from the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988, vol. 1, page 62.

Column 671

Certainly, the Soviet Union continues to pour money into new submarines and now has a third aircraft carrier under construction. Despite that investment, more than 60 per cent. of the Soviet submarine fleet is more than 20 years old, and 30 per cent. is more than 30 years old. The United States navy says that the Soviets have only 30 submarines which could be described as modern, first-line anti-submarine platforms--that is about the same number as the United States Los Angeles class fleet.

Two years ago the director of submarine warfare for the United States navy rejected claims that the Soviet Union's latest nuclear-powered submarine, the Akula class, was superior to the Los Angeles class. He told Congress :

"Today's United States submarine force is unquestionably the best in the world."

In terms of new carriers, Soviet officials have recently said that they expect heavy cuts in the navy's budget in the near future as perestroika starts to hit military spending. There is a large question mark over whether the third and largest Soviet aircraft carrier will ever be completed. The Pentagon itself rejects the idea that the other two will be used in any offensive role, but says rather that they will be used to improve the currently abysmal air defence cover of the Soviet Union's forward defences in the Norwegian sea.

I do not believe in complacency. If the Soviets are as sincere about naval arms control as they appear to be, they must be prepared to give up those aircraft carriers. If Mr. Gorbachev has ever seen any United States navy documents about the cost of running vessels of that size, he must be pressing for cancellation.

If the Soviet Union is sincere not just about reducing the size of its military force but about restructuring it in a defensive manner, what will be NATO's response? I sincerely hope that it will be different from the experience of Colonel Harry Summers, a former professor at the United States army war college. Last summer, he recounted how, in the late 1970s, he had listened to an admiral's briefing on the strategic rationale of the United States navy. Slide after slide depicted the Soviet naval threat and how it was being countered. At the end, the admiral asked an army general what he thought. "Very interesting", the general said, "but what you've just said is that if the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, we could do away with the United States navy." The admiral laughed. "You don't understand," he said. "If the Soviet navy sank tomorrow, I'd get me a new set of slides."

There is a legitimate role for our Navy and the decline in Soviet naval activity should enable us to reassess what that role should be. When we form the next Government we shall conduct a wide-ranging and thoroughgoing review.

I take this opportunity to praise all men and women of all ranks who serve this country on shore and at sea. The defence of our shores is essential, and we salute all the brave men and women in our forces.

5.13 pm

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : I am sorry that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) did not feel able to give way to me, because I wanted to ask a pertinent question. His attitude was in stark contrast to that of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), who is always very courteous

Column 672

in giving way in services debates. That characterises such debates. They may be robust but they are mostly to the point and we try to find things out. Some 52 minutes ago the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington spoke about what was happening in eastern Europe. I take no exception to that because we can only base debates on the future of our defence on what is happening on the other side.

Towards the end of his speech the hon. Gentleman said how out of tune the Government were and Mrs. Thatcher in particular--he named the Prime Minister--in not going the way of all the other countries in NATO. He said that we need defence cuts now. I tried to intervene because I wanted to ask him where we need defence cuts. Some 52 minutes later, we are no wiser. The hon. Gentleman wants defence cuts now but he is not prepared to tell us what should be cut, how that should be done and whether it will put any of our services, including the Royal Navy, at risk. We must take the hon. Gentleman's assertion, in the way that it was offered, as meaningless, because he was not prepared to be questioned on it. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I congratulate him on that.

Mr. Boyes indicated dissent.

Mr. Mates : I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. The need for the hon. Gentleman to increase his knowledge has been more than adequately shown, and I hope that the Secretary of State will note that.

In the past year, the Select Committee on Defence has continued to take an interest in the Royal Navy and last Session we published no fewer than four reports relating to it. We published a short report entitled "The Royal Navy's Surface Fleet : Current Issues", which monitored developments since we had compiled our major report on the future size and role of the Royal Navy in 1988. This time round we were able to report grounds for a little more optimism about the future of the destroyer frigate fleet than we had felt able to do in our earlier report, owing to the Government ordering three more type 23 frigates in 1988. Since that report, the Government have ordered three more from Swan Hunter and we warmly welcome that order. Nevertheless there is still no room for complacency. Last year we said :

"There is still some way to go before a pattern of ship ordering is established which would guarantee that the escort fleet remains at around 50' ships".

The ordering of three Duke class frigates is important, but I hope that the Minister will agree that of greater importance is the date at which they will be laid down--when work on them will begin--because that dictates the eventual date of entry into service.

I have a slight fear that there is a growing gap between ordering and laying down. It is common ground that we need about 2.6 ships laid down each year. That is about one every five months and that is not happening. Of the three whose orders were announced in July 1988, the Iron Duke was laid down in December 1988 and the Monmouth in August 1989 ; I believe that Montrose has yet to be laid down but should be shortly. It would be helpful if, when announcing the placing of orders, as my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for Defence Procurement did last December, the dates of laying down

Column 673

were also announced. It would be useful to hear from the Minister the laying down dates for Westminster, Northumberland and Richmond. We also published a report on the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. That is a very difficult subject and our report sought to set out the facts about decommissioning and the options open to the Ministry for disposing of old submarines. This problem will not go away. The Ministry's policy of wait and see has some merits, but decisions will soon be necessary as Dreadnought is joined by more and more of her sisters.

The London dumping convention met in November and agreed to a ban on decommissioned nuclear submarines being dumped at sea, apparently against the wishes of the United Kingdom. The Ministry's immediate response, as reported in the press, suggested that there was still some possibility of the Government using sea dumping. It would be helpful to have on record the Minister's views of the implications for nuclear submarine decommissioning of the recent decisions of the London dumping convention. I make that request full of sympathy for the problems that confront the Department in respect of that difficult matter.

Our 10th report last Session was on the procurement of the vertical launch Sea Wolf missile system and the type 23 frigate command system. Both demonstrate the difficulties of accurately estimating the costs and time involved in software-intensive projects. It is a matter for regret that the type 23s will go into service without a computer-assisted command system, which will inevitably reduce their operational effectiveness. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister of State can give a better indication of progress with the new project than could my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Last Session, as in many previous years, we published a report on the progress of the Trident programme. During that inquiry, we visited Kings Bay in Georgia, where Royal Navy personnel are in training. We shall update our inquiry again this year. Last week, the Committee received the Secretary of State's annual report on Trident. We shall study it in detail, but we all welcome the continuing reduction in Trident's real cost and the fact that there is no slippage in the in-service date. That programme is one of which everyone concerned can be very proud.

Just before Christmas, we visited the Falklands, and aside from seeing the good heart that everyone was in, with Christmas just coming--life is not easy, serving down in the south Atlantic--we had an entertaining evening on board HMS Penelope--the oldest frigate in the fleet by some way, having been commissioned in October 1963, when many of its crew had not yet been born. Last June, the Defence Committee was told that HMS Penelope could run on for a further four years, but I gather that the end may be nearer than that for her. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify the position in respect of that frigate and of the older batch 2A frigates--the Leander class frigates--in general, as they approach a quarter of a century of service. As last year's report points out, there are growing penalties in terms of cost, time and manpower in keeping those frigates running.

While we were in the Falklands, we visited HMS Leeds Castle, which is an offshore patrol vessel more or less permanently stationed in the Falklands. Hers is not an enviable task, and in my judgment life for the ship's company--all of whom are on short-term postings--is not

Column 674

made easier by what seems to be the Admiralty's policy of posting a very high proportion of officers and crew who have given notice of their intention to retire prematurely and who thus work out their time in the Falklands. That obviously presents problems of morale, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will reconsider its policy. I hasten to add that we were all the more impressed by the way in which all those on HMS Penelope went about their tasks.

Last Friday, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the Defence Committee published a report on the procurement of the EH101 helicopter and the light attack helicopter, so that it would be available to right hon. and hon. Members today. The part of the report dealing with the anti-submarine warfare variant of the EH101, or the Merlin, is relevant to today's debate. I shall not run through all the Committee's observations, because I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will read the report for themselves, but I shall highlight a few of the points that it makes.

The success of the project is, as yet, far from assured. The Ministry must be satisfied that the development programme has progressed far enough and well enough for the project's success to be likely before placing production orders. The Ministry plans to order only 50 aircraft initially despite its acceptance that the operational requirement for them remains at 74. It will be interesting to hear how the operational requirement has altered to justify the change in the number ordered--unless it is simply a budgetary matter, in which case it would be more honest if we were told that.

It should be emphasised that a larger order could lead to a considerably lower unit cost than our estimate of about £40 million each for the 50 aircraft. We trust that if all goes well, an order for a second batch will follow the first. Again, the EH101 demonstrates the management problems inherent in international collaboration. If the trend towards greater collaboration and procurement is to continue, we must ensure that projects are tightly controlled.

In case any misunderstanding should arise from the remarks of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who seemed more concerned about his constituency than with the Navy's requirements, our report specifically states that problems of delay within the MOD belong to the past. The report observes, in paragraph 50 :

"MOD have in the past contributed to their own difficulties, as a result of their inability to bring themselves to a position where their philosophy for mobility on the battlefield of the '90s and beyond could be stated, and thus a firm requirement determined." That does not apply to the naval version of the EH101, but it does apply to the helicopter requirements of all our services over the next decade.

Mr. Cohen : Will the hon. Gentleman, who is of course Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, say how much money is known to have been wasted by the Ministry of Defence on the EH101 project so far? What is the projected overspend? How much money has been wasted by the Government?

Mr. Mates : I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman in his pejorative words. The project is over-cost and over-time, and the figures are set out in the report. That is a matter for regret, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister regrets it as much as we do. However, to say that the effort

Column 675

has been wasted is to use a somewhat ignorant phrase. In the development of new weapons systems, what is waste and what is research? What is possible and what is not possible? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary acknow-ledges our concern, and his remarks reflected that. We are all concerned if a programme is late and running over cost--but it is not the first time that that has happened with new technology, and I fear that it will not be the last. I conclude with a couple of observations that are mine alone and have nothing to do with the Defence Select Committee. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington spoke of naval arms reductions, and although I agree with some of his remarks, he reached entirely the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman colours all his remarks with a fundamental anti-Americanism that does no justice to his arguments. To say that it is the Americans who are being bellicose is to ignore the fact that it is largely due to their efforts that CFE got going as well as it did. We should give the Americans considerable credit. A meaningful agreement on reducing troop numbers in Europe would not be possible without the co-operation of the Americans.

As to naval arms reductions, it was inevitably right not to include them in the first round of the CFE talks. That would have caused delay and unbelievable complications, given that so many other problems that have nothing to do with Europe arise when the United States and the Soviet Union discuss their naval forces. The United States Navy keeps very nearly as many of its assets in the Pacific as in the Atlantic. The Soviet Union keeps a greater number of its naval assets in the Pacific, and that has nothing to do with the threats between NATO and the Warsaw pact. Their deployment there is due to other areas of instability in the Pacific rim, in which both super-powers have a legitimate interest.

However, I do not believe that another round of arms reduction talks can be embarked upon without naval forces being mentioned. I hope that our Government will say that for talks to be credible over the next three, four or five years, talks must begin on how we can wind down those parts of the West and Warsaw pact navies that affect the East-West balance of power.

A way must be found of keeping separate the need for stability in the Pacific rim, where the position of the Soviet Union and the United States grow more common rather than more different. As the Soviet Union encounters problems in its own territories, that trend may begin to be evident on the European scene. That is an exciting prospect. When we come to talk about naval reductions, once again it will mainly concern the Soviet Union and the United States. Although we should be present, supporting and participating, we must remember that we have to take care of places that could be under threat, where we have a legitimate interest, when we decide the future size and strength of our Royal Navy.

If I had to try to predict where we shall be in 10 years' time--it will have to be general because it will probably be wrong--I would say that if present trends continue in Europe we are likely to have smaller ground forces and smaller air forces, but I doubt whether we will find any reason to have a much smaller Navy.

For the past 40 years we have had to focus on the threat on the ground between a massively powerful Warsaw pact

Column 676

and NATO. As that threat diminishes, the relative necessity to cope with threats out of area, on the fringes, will grow. I believe that the threat has almost gone from the central front, but we must now focus more sharply on the threat on the northern flank and, in particular, on the southern flank. For example, Turkey, which is a full member of NATO, borders the Soviet Union--and Armenia at that--Iran, Syria and Iraq. We have a common purpose to defend Turkish integrity and Turkey has a common purpose to defend the integrity of western Europe. We must not forget that a threat still exists there, and that there is uncertainty and unpredictability. When that threat comes from fundamentalist Muslims, we must over-insure rather than under-insure. We shall always have a task for the Royal Navy. I hope that the Minister will have something to say about amphibious replacements. I beg him to realise that, given that there may be reductions elsewhere, we cannot go through the next decade, when we will need more flexible, smaller armed forces, with our amphibious capability confined to roll-on/roll-off ferries after our two excellent amphibious carriers have gone. That prospect is not one that I would wish to contemplate.

5.32 pm

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton) : It is a pleasure for me to follow the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). He is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and I have been a member of that Committee for the past two years. During that time he has been a fair, objective and excellent Chairman. Perhaps that glowing reference will ensure that he will remain the chairman of that Back-Bench committee for many years to come.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement opened the debate with a reference to East-West relations. I congratulate him on referring to the changes in those relations, but he gave no hint of the Government's stance other than saying that it would be more of the same.

The Financial Times, in its front page on Saturday, had an article headed "Bush and Thatcher lead a chorus of approval". The article was not talking about defence cuts, but about South Africa. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying :

"When people are going your way in a bold and courageous style we should give them encouragement to make them go further and faster." The encouragement that she gave to Nelson Mandela and to Mr. de Klerk was to invite them to 10 Downing street before the ink on any agreement was dry. However, that does not apply to her stance on defence, when she says, "Here and no further." That is a complete antithesis to her approach to South Africa, and it highlights the inconsistency of Government policy.

What happened at the weekend? The Prime Minister called in the Foreign Secretary, according to The Observer, to reprimand him on his speech to the Conservative political centre at Wroxton two weeks ago. It says :

"Mr. Hurd looked forward to a time when large cuts in defence spending would make money available for improving the quality of life'."

But the article also said that the Prime Minister

"does not believe that defence cuts are inevitable."

So the Foreign Secretary had to appear on "The World This Weekend" last Sunday and retract what he said. There is no hint of a peace dividend from the Government.

Contrast that situation with what is happening in America at the moment. There is a reduction of more than

Column 677

2.6 per cent. in the United States defence budget this year. The Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, put his package to Congress and its response was that it was too timid. The United States has been reducing its budget since 1985. Contrast that with our stance. We have real growth in our defence budget of some £1 billion per year for the next three years. Compare that with the 13 per cent. reduction in the United States since 1985. We know that their five-year plan will continue on that downward path.

It is sad that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement cannot refer to a change in the Government's style in relation to the changing situation in Europe. Few people would deny that the system of alliances on which European security has rested for the past three and half decades, rigid as it was during the cold war, has been extensively undermined, and is rapidly becoming obsolescent. That implies that it is necessary to have an alternative framework for security for the entire continent.

A major requirement for any progress is that the United States and its leading NATO allies, such as ourselves, depart from the silly belief that NATO's most urgent task is to frustrate an attack on western Europe by a militant Soviet Union and its equally militant Warsaw pact allies. In at least three eastern European countries their Parliaments would have to decide if their forces could be used. So much for the militant Warsaw pact. There is not a militant approach by the Warsaw pact.

I can appreciate that the Government are cautious, but surely they can come up with some intellectual thinking on defence issues during the next few years. The Government should say that we have a changing situation and that we support Gorbachev. If the Government support Gorbachev it is incumbent on them to consider and formulate a new defence posture. Sadly, we do not have that opportunity just now. At the moment, institutional truth is evident. John Kenneth Galbraith mentioned institutional truth, which is different from simple truth. I am asking the Minister for simple truth, and not the institutional truth of the military industrial complex. Simple truth should make the Government face up to the changing realities in eastern Europe.

Consider our own Navy and nuclear depth bombs. Can I ask the Minister to respond to this in his summing up? The British nuclear free-fall depth bombs--the WE177B and 177C--which are on Royal Navy ships will become obsolete by the end of the decade. I believe that the decision to replace them will be taken in the next few months. There is widespread agreement that those weapons make no nuclear sense. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) referred to the arguments of the former Admiral Eberle on that subject. They are becoming increasingly redundant, and I would like the Minister to consider that.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Faslane and the nuclear reactors. That is in my constituency. The Select Committee on Defence has asked the Ministry of Defence for a note about the supposed faults in the nuclear reactor in HMS Warspite and others. To date, I have not been involved with the MOD on this issue, but I know that the Scottish papers had a lot to say about it at the weekend. A number of alarmist telephone calls have been made to different people, and they have told me that the language being used by the anonymous callers is very technical, and therefore gives the calls an element of credibility. I do not want to add to rumour-mongering, but the Government

Column 678

should consider the situation, and give us reasonable explanations of why there are so many boats in port at Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport.

I am informed that at Faslane, three Valiant class, two Resolution class, one Swiftsure and one diesel are in port at present. Why have those boats been recalled? We know that if there is a hairline fracture in the coolant systems which are manufactured by Roll-Royce in Derby, it could affect not just one boat by many. Certainly it is most unusual for all the Valiant class submarines to be in port at the same time, and it is possible that all the Valiant and Resolution class submarines have similar problems. The question is how serious the fault is in each submarine : if the Minister cannot give me an answer at the end of the debate, perhaps he will write to me setting out the views of the Ministry of Defence.

The hon. Member for Hampshire, East mentioned a number of investigations that the Select Committee is currently undertaking. One concerns the physical security of military installations. Mention has been made of the tragic accident at Deal in which 11 members of the Royal Marines were killed, and I join other hon. Members in expressing my sympathy. Like many other members of the Select Committee, I am worried about the use of private contractors--not just on that occasion, but in the future --and the evidence given to the Committee on Wednesday by MOD officials gave rise to more anxiety rather than less. It seems that, if a private contract is awarded for two or three years, it will be maintained regardless of lapses in security, rather than being cancelled immediately. There is widespread concern about that on both sides of the House, and I beg the Minister to take account of the problem for the sake of the security and safety of military personnel.

Last week I received a leaked internal memo which emanated from the divisional secretary of the ammunition division of Royal Ordnance. It reads :

"Unless we frighten the MOD into agreeing with our point of view, I see no prospect that we will achieve our objective."

The objective to which he refers is the right to demand the withdrawal of the MOD police and to replace them with Royal Ordnance guards--a right that Royal Ordnance intends to exercise. That is rather alarming language.

As I said to the newspapers that contacted me at the weekend, I am on the side of the MOD. I believe that it should not give in to coercive tactics, but should stand its ground and take heed of the notes of a meeting on the withdrawal of its police held in the MOD building on 6 June 1989. Five deputy chief constables were asked for their views, and all of them-- representing Nottingham, Cheshire, Lancashire, Gwent, and Avon and Somerset --expressed deep concern. The issue of private contractors will not go away, and I hope that the Minister will give it his attention.

A few weeks ago, the International Herald Tribune featured an article by Albert Wohlstatter, a military strategist involved in the mutually assured destruction strategy of the mid-1960s and a conservative by any definition. According to him, the Americans want leaders to respond positively to the disintegration of Communist empires. Prudence requires a faster, not slower, response to the new problems caused by the break-up of the east European ice. America's defence budget is currently being cut, because Gramm-Rudman is "meeting Gorbachev" where the United States of America is constrained by budget problems. I do not think it will be long before the Treasury

Column 679

in this country "meets Thatcher". Sadly, that possibility has not been addressed today, but I hope that by the time we debate the defence estimates in the summer the Government will have faced the reality of change, and will give us their proposals for United Kingdom defence in the 1990s.

5.45 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East) : It was right for the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) to have a ramble through eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, because what has happened there will undoubtedly affect the decisions that the Ministry of Defence must make in the future. It is likely--indeed, I trust that it is the case--that those changes are irreversible, and I hope and expect that the negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe will produce a positive outcome. As a consequence, I believe that we shall no longer require the single-scenario defences on which we have often based our spending, such as heavy tanks. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) had to say, as he is an ex-tankie.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North East) : Cavalry.

Mr. Sayeed : A cavalryman operating in tanks is normally known as a tankie.

It was notable that my right hon. Friend acknowledged that the likely outcome of successful CFE talks was a reduction in land forces and possibly in air forces, but no reduction in naval forces : in my view, the reduction in East-West tension may well result in the Navy's role being expanded, because the Navy is the most flexible of all the Services.

Despite the shrunken state of the Navy's manpower and units, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces--I hope that he will not leave just yet--is much exercised by the question of recruitment, especially in view of the demographic trends of which we have been told. I understand from the newspapers that he recently visited the Dutch navy, and that his visits persuaded him that it might be a good idea to employ the Wrens in surface warships but not submarines. He might even announce a change of policy tonight, and hold a press conference tomorrow. I have no doubt about the ability of the Wrens : I believe that they are a considerable asset to the Royal Navy, and I know how proud and protective the Navy is of them.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : My hon. Friend is going to say something sexist.

Mr. Sayeed : I admit that my hon. Friend is partially right. I have been considering how my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will try to persuade the House that a change of policy, as well as being necessary, can be fitted in with what the MOD has said before. He would have sought the help of an estimable but fictitious civil servant whom I shall call Carruthers. This civil servant, a fine protege of Sir Humphrey Appleby, would have responded to the Minister's point that the Royal Navy should employ Wrens at sea in warships--

Column 680

[Interruption.] It would help if my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East did not keep interrupting me ; I cannot help laughing at his asides when he does.

When the Minister elicited Carruthers's aid to obtain ammunition to endorse the policy of employing Wrens at sea, he would say to Carruthers, "I have to convince my colleagues of the merits of my solution to the demographic trough. I have to persuade them that nothing that I am proposing will conflict with the idea that women should not serve in the front line. I require you to go away and square the circle."

Carruthers, fine fellow that he is and no mean student of Sir Humphrey, would retire and, when reporting back to the Minister, would say, "Minister, there is no problem. The definition of front line' is a matter of semantics. My solution is as follows : front line' means that you operate over enemy territory and that you engage in hand-to-hand combat. That being the case, there is no problem over having women at sea in warships. I have couched my recommendation and definition of front line' in those terms because we do not want this monstrous army of women to believe that they will have the opportunity to fly Tornado aircraft, or do any job that a man does and be paid for it in an infantry battalion."

"Furthermore," Carruthers would report to the Minister, "Wrens already serve at sea--in survey ships, in royal fleet auxiliaries. You can point out, Minister, that if you are sunk in HMS Hecate it is not very different from being sunk in HMS Hermione." The Minister would then say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. You can collect your gong on the way out," to which Carruthers would reply, "Yes Minister."

If Wrens serve at sea in warships, there will have to be changes to the Queen's regulations for the Royal Navy. That does not matter all that much ; it can be catered for. It will mean structural changes to warships, in which accommodation standards have improved so much that they are getting close to reducing the offensive and defensive capabilities of warships. However, that too could be allowed for. There is the point that the Dutch have women serving in warships. Why cannot we? However, the Dutch navy is different from the Royal Navy. The Dutch navy has about 15 units of offshore patrol vessels or bigger--frigates, destroyers and so on. We have 63. Dutch naval personnel total about 17,000, ours total 57,000. But the main difference between the Dutch navy and the Royal Navy is that the Dutch navy mostly goes to sea only during the week.

Mr. David Martin : My hon. Friend knows that I raised this matter two years ago in my maiden speech. It is quite close to my heart. Does my hon. Friend believe that no advances can be made if women serve in warships throughout the coming decade? Women are allowed to train as pilots and to serve in the Royal Air Force. Why is that so different from combat roles in Royal Navy warships?

Mr. Sayeed : My hon. Friend has asked me questions that ought to have been answered by the Minister when he replied to my hon. Friend's maiden speech. If I remember rightly, the points that he made in his excellent speech on that occasion were not adequately answered. I am sure that my hon. Friend is well aware, however, that women do not serve in the Royal Air Force as front-line pilots.

Column 681

The principal difference between the Royal Netherlands navy and our Royal Navy is that the Dutch navy does not usually go to sea at weekends. The ships are tied up alongside the quay at their home base. Men who serve in the Royal Navy, however, can spend months, even years, at sea and away from home.

As for the argument that women serve in survey ships and royal fleet auxiliaries, I remind the Minister, if he intends to announce a new policy, that most survey ships are used as hospital ships in times of conflict and that consequently they are protected by the terms of the Geneva convention. Although most royal fleet auxiliaries would serve in a combat area, for most of the time they would keep out of trouble. The difference between serving in a royal fleet auxiliary ship and a warship is that a warship's job is to seek out the enemy. It does not matter if one is the cook or the captain ; the risk on board a warship is exactly the same for everyone. As for operating within foreign territory, it is quite likely that at a time of conflict a warship would have to operate inside enemy-held waters--even, possibly, within enemy territorial waters. I cannot answer the argument that sailors do not engage in hand-to-hand combat at sea, except, possibly, with some of their mess mates now and again.e a However, one is just as dead whether one is killed by a shell or a bayonet.

The greatest of my objections to the suggestion that Wrens should serve at sea in warships is that in seeking to overcome one problem--recruitment--we shall exacerbate another--retention.

Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. Am I not right in thinking that it is not only the Dutch navy which permits women to serve at sea and that the Israelis, the New Zealanders, the Australians, the Americans and even the Norwegians permit it? Also, am I not right in thinking that this issue ought not to be settled by men and that the vast majority of Wrens wish to go to sea? We live in an age of equal opportunities. If Wrens want to go to sea, it is not for men to stand in their way.

Mr. Sayeed : My hon. Friend's points have considerable validity. However, the fact is that it is men who serve at sea. We must ensure that we can maintain sufficient numbers of them at sea, that they continue to wish to serve at sea and that their families remain keen for them to serve at sea. I accept that a large number of Wrens would like to go to sea. I do not disparage their abilities. However, most of the navies of the countries to which my hon. Friend has referred are shallow water and coastal navies. They are not deep water navies whose ships spend most of their time abroad.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale) : Does the hon. Gentleman have any evidence that men at sea, whom he seems to want to protect for some spurious reason, do not want women to serve alongside them?

Mr. Sayeed : I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question in a few minutes. I hope that he will allow me to make my speech in my own way.

There is a vast difference between a shallow water, coastal water navy, and a deep water, foreign-going navy. I do not intend to dwell for much longer on the role of

Column 682

women in the Royal Navy. It will be the only point that I shall make this eveing because a number of hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.

The solution that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is advocating to overcome the problem of recruitment would exacerbate the greater problem of retention. We already know that the main reason for premature voluntary retirement or for service men not re-enlisting is pressure from wives. I have received advice from families--this deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)--and from ships companies. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East and I went aboard HMS Penelope, where I found only one person who thought that it was a good idea for Wrens to serve on warships. I have spoken to many service families, but none of them think that that is a good idea. Men and women serving together in cramped conditions and away from home for long periods will increase the already considerable pressures on service men and therefore on their wives.

Anyone who has served at sea knows that many people being cooped up in a small vessel creates jealousies and tensions. Women serving on warships will add to that tension and will damage retention. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has asked the right question--how do we maintain recruitment?--but I believe that he has got the wrong answer.

I would presume that a submission has been made to the Minister by the second sea lord, who is the chief of naval personnel. He provides professional advice on recruitment and retention. Does the advice that he has given my hon. Friend the Minister of State endorse the policy of Wrens serving on warships with the Royal Navy, or is it so guarded in its response that it constitutes a rejection?

6.1 pm

Next Section

  Home Page