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Mr. Taylor said :
"My wife's pension is £26.20. This being a total of £138.75 for the household."
He went on to say that their weekly average expenditure eats up all that money easily. He includes the telephone in his weekly average expenditure and says that he can take incoming calls only. He also says :
Column 711"all these proposed increases are really pushing us literally to the wall."
His punch line is :
"The reason for my writing this letter is to express my protest against such severe increases to our cost of living which after my service of thirteen and a half years in the Royal Navy (including the war years), plus 30 years with the Ministry of Defence is, you will agree, against all sense of justice and fair play."
I believe that most hon. Members will agree with those sentiments. It is shocking that the Government have placed ex-Royal Navy personnel with that amount of service in such a plight.
Recently I visited Faslane. I pay tribute to the peace campers. They have obtained information that the public have a right to know, but which the Ministry of Defence has consistently hidden. They have obtained it despite Ministry of Defence police coming around every five or 10 minutes. Faslane is being prepared for Trident. Millions of pounds have been spent on it. Money is no object. It has been pointed out to me that over £10 million was spent on road construction but that it was all dug up again after the work had been completed. My borough could do with some of that £10 million, so that the proposed surface road which will lead to many houses being knocked down in Leyton and Leytonstone could be put underground. The peace campers found out about the Ministry of Defence's plans for the site of special scientific interest at Rhu Spit. They also found out about the submarines that have limped into port during the past few months. We know now that they limped into port because of nuclear reactor faults. That was made clear in The Independent on 1 February. The report refers to the fact that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's safety and reliability directorate has expressed concern about the safety of the reactors. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that the safety and reliability directorate has a role to play. The report says :
"all five of the Valiant and Churchill boats are in highly unusual under normal conditions.
The fault is believed to be a hairline crack in the primary cooling system of the reactor".
The report also said :
"10 days ago a Polaris class vessel had returned unexpectedly early cracking of reactor pressure circuits is a well-known problem in the civil nuclear power industry."
That problem is coming home to roost in nuclear-powered submarines. The hon. Member for Gosport mentioned nuclear test veterans. Many Labour Members have been fighting for proper compensation for those involved in the A-tests in the 1950s and 1960s. What about the Navy personnel in those Polaris submarines? The Ministry should come clean about that problem. Is Ministers' reluctance to come clean about these problems one of the reasons why the Government have been so mean about paying veterans?
Mr. Archie Hamilton : I must put the record straight. The advantage for a submariner is that he is not exposed to the normal degrees of radiation that the rest of us are in the open air. The fact that he spends some of his life at sea means that he is exposed to lower rates of radiation than other people. There is no evidence that any of our submariners have suffered from radiation.
Column 712there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer. Years later, it was suddenly discovered that there was such a link. I fear that that may become the case in this respect.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : We should have more faith in what the Minister says if all the veterans of Christmas Island had not been told that they were under no risk. The Government should at least admit that they made a mistake and pay them compensation.
Mr. Cohen : That is exactly the point that I am trying to make. The Minister says that there is no risk of radiation, yet reactors have developed hairline cracks. That must create doubts in people's minds. All the expert opinion should be made public.
What if the Vanguard class of submarine, which will carry Trident, develops the same reactor faults? If its reactor blows, there will be enormous self- destruction. Trident has indiscriminate and massive overkill powers many hundred times greater than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
What is the point of using Trident to obliterate people who are campaigning for democracy and better economic conditions in eastern Europe? The tests carried out on Trident have been far from perfect : we remember the catherine wheel test, when it fell straight back down. Such failures would make Trident a suicide weapon.
Defence cuts have been made by President Gorbachev. If a war is started against the Soviet Union by accident or in mad circumstances, it may be argued by a Soviet general that the best way to achieve a draw is to get Trident used. That person would have to be mad because that would be suicidal for both sides, but it may be preferred to defeat, which could be inherent in Soviet cuts that are made unbalanced by Western expansion in nuclear arms.
I raised the problem of sonar in an intervention. The Minister said that the Soviet Union has substantially improved sonar techniques. The Vanguard submarine is bigger than normal submarines in order to accommodate the huge Trident weapons and it will be relatively easily tracked. The United States is aware of that problem. It is holding back on full-scale production of Trident because it knows that Congress is uneasy about it. It is using Trident as a bargaining chip for the strategic arms reduction talks. It is being built to be scrapped and the US will scrap it straight after START 2, but the United Kingdom is dependent upon the United States for Trident. The £10 billion-plus cost will be down the drain for those useless but immensely dangerous nuclear weapons that have no realistic role in the changed world.
Naval forces are left out of arms control talks. Verification has been mentioned, but I wish that there was some verification. We have had the thinnest verification that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), but the United Kingdom has not taken part in that and has shown no interest in doing so. It is silly for naval forces to be left out when arms cuts covering conventional forces and land and air-based nuclear weapons are high on the agenda. It is silly that naval nuclear weapons will remain untouched, unrestricted and unrestrained. Naval cuts should be made soon, not only for international peace and stability but to redistribute to people money otherwise wasted on weapons. Such cuts are best for the Royal Navy, because it cannot plan for the future while the Government fudge this issue.
Column 713The Government ignore world events. The Warsaw pact is in disarray. The Soviet Union has made substantial moves towards defensive defence. President Gorbachev has made huge arms cuts--in many cases, unilateral cuts--to support the economy and, indeed, for his own survival. He has repeatedly called for a deal. A Government booklet, "Broadsheet 89", on the Navy says :
"A number of proposals on naval forces have been put forward by the Warsaw Pact, in open speeches and at formal negotiations. These have ranged across a wide spectrum, from constraints to confidence building measures The CFE talks do not impact upon the RN." It later deals with the
"Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, (CSCE) The latter does not affect Naval forces except where naval gunfire support and amphibious forces take part in exercises involving more than 13,000 troops."
That is saying that the Navy will not do a deal. President Gorbachev has been spurned by the Government when he has called for a deal on naval forces. The Soviet Union, because of economic pressures, will make naval cuts, but we shall be left with nuclear weapons based on cold war thinking and a strategy that is obsolete and hugely expensive.
We want the peace dividend, which could represent billions of pounds. It could be done in co-ordination with the Soviet Union and without any risk. Instead, we have massive overkill and massive overspend. We keep being told by Conservative Members--and the hon. Member for Gosport was no exception-- that now is not the right time ; it is never the right time for Conservative Members. Is it not the right time when arms cuts are being made by the Soviet Union? The peace dividend could apply to arms conversion. We should be reshaping our yards to build merchant shipping, which is needed to boost our trade and world trade. We could be guaranteeing jobs into the future. The peace dividend could especially apply to welfare services. We could be keeping hospitals open instead of closing them.
The Government are out of touch with world events and are missing a great opportunity. If they get their way, they will be condemned in history for it.
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North) : I wish that the hon. Members for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) could have found it in their hearts to show their appreciation of what the Royal Navy does for this country. Their lack of enthusiasm followed the speech of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). I was worried by not only the content of that speech, which talked about the potential reduction in naval expenditure, but the tone in which it was delivered, which showed a complete lack of enthusiasm for the Royal Navy.
I interpreted that as meaning that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington--the same applies to the hon. Members for Leyton and for Denton and Reddish--regards the Royal Navy as an instrument of war. I suggest that it is an instrument of, and for, peace. First, it is an essentially defensive instrument, offering protection to this country. Secondly, it is an instrument that operates as effectively in peacetime as in wartime. As has been evidenced in the Gulf and the Caribbean, its role in peacetime can often be as essential as in any wartime operation, and presumably its purely humanitarian objectives would be supported by both sides of the House.
Column 714I trust that someone who says that he wants the Royal Navy developed is not seen as ignoring changes in the world. I belong to a generation that has seen changes and gone through a world war. No one of my generation would do other than welcome a move towards peace. After the first world war, we saw the rise of national independence in numerous countries in eastern and southern Europe and saw them celebrating it, yet we also saw the adventurism, nationalism and aggression that it bred. Only a few years later, some of those countries cast aside the very freedom that they had sought in the first world war or, as in the Baltic republics, had it brutally taken from them by their bigger neighbour.
It is not enough for us to say that we have had a few weeks or months of euphoria and calls from people--including those who were active during the cold war on the other side of the iron curtain or the Berlin wall--for peace, freedom and understanding. Their actions must speak as loudly as their words. It will be a long time before we can say that the leopard has changed his spots and that they are all converts to freedom, peace, democracy and liberal ideals. In the meantime, to increase the pace of the process, we may take part in negotiations to reduce arms and arms expenditure. I do not believe that there is any great difference between the two sides of the House on that issue. Although it may be possible for us to conceive of a move towards a reduction in offensive weapons on both sides, there would be nothing desirable in having a major reduction in defensive weapons on either side. Purely defensive weapons give security, which means that there is no need for either side to fear the other or to fear change. We want change, and we shall not fear it as long as we have our national security. We in the West feel secure, and I want the nations of the East to feel equally secure. I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement. At the top of my agenda was the question whether we were still committed to an escort fleet of about 50 vessels. My hon. Friend took the bull by the horns and answered in a straightforward way, but in offering him my thanks, I feel a certain hesitation. I should have thought that "about 50 vessels" means either a little above or a little below 50, but the number is now permanently a little below 50. We know that some ships are not immediately available for use, so we have a fleet of 48--well, that is nearly 50. We know that 44 vessels could be ready in a relatively short time.
The numbers are getting perilously small. That is not a jingoistic statement--I do not want to send a gunboat anywhere. Commitments such as those that we have in the Gulf come up without any action by us. We have no control over how those circumstances arise. There is no guarantee that there will be only one such incident at a time--there could be more than one in different parts of the world which involve direct British interests and where it would be necessary for us to maintain a naval presence.
I trust that the Government are still wedded to their promise of "about 50 vessels", not to something below 50. We all welcome the building of newer ships and the reduction in the age of our fleet, about which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State spoke, but we must remember that we will get the advantages from new equipment such as the type 23 frigate only if the ship is fully operational. It is not fully operational if it does not have the computerised control system that it was intended to have.
Column 715I know that the ship can operate without that equipment, but in practice the advantages do not exist until it has that capacity. I trust that we will have from the Ministry of Defence a commitment not only to provide hulls in the water, by which we measured the success of the escort fleet in the past, but to ensure that the necessary equipment is provided--the control system and the seagoing version of the EH101 helicopter, which is an essential part of the new vessel. It is not always easy to make a commitment to a new weapon. People often say that it will not work, that it will probably cost more and that it will take longer to develop than expected. My first duty on being elected in 1979 was to take a group of trade unionists to see the then Navy Minister on behalf of the Marconi workers who were building Sting Ray. That was one of those projects that was criticised by the Left and the Right because it was said that it would never succeed. Sting Ray is now perhaps the finest lightweight torpedo in the world. It has export markets and export potential. We need a commitment to finishing the jobs that we have started. I have been alarmed at the talk that Marconi cannot achieve a full-scale production order for the heavyweight torpedo and to hear that Westland has not been given a production order for the helicopter. There must at some point be a commitment to buy a certain weapon because we believe that it can be made to work. There must be a point at which the advice given to the Ministry of Defence is sufficient to lead it to make a decision. I hope that it will reach quick and early decisions on these essential matters.
We need also a commitment to the support facilities on which the Navy relies. When HMS Southampton was brought somewhat ignominiously into Portsmouth harbour after she was severely damaged, it was a mistake not to have the repair work done at the naval repair base, which had the men and equipment ready for her refitting. One cannot argue that that work could not have been done there, because that is where refitting work is carried out. It has been said that a royal naval fleet maintenance base has no accounting procedures to submit a tender, but every piece of work done on the fleet maintenance base is costed.
Plenty of people in the naval base at Portsmouth would have been prepared to submit, if not a tender exactly, a firm quotation by which the success of Portsmouth in the repair work on HMS Southampton could have been judged. Instead, the vessel was taken away for all the work--not only the repairs of new damage but the work that would otherwise have been done in Portsmouth--to be carried out. The then Minister gave Portsmouth some offsetting work, but that is not the same, is it, as allowing a ship that was to be refitted in Portsmouth to be repaired there? After that blow, morale in Portsmouth will not easily be restored.
A commitment to facilities, equipment and the development of weapons is essential. It is up to the Ministry of Defence not simply to sit back and wait to see what it can get but to commit itself to developing what it wants.
Mr. David Martin : My hon. Friend knows how we in Portsmouth fought over the HMS Southampton issue and how the morale of the work force was badly affected. The package of work that was supplied has been keeping the
Column 716naval base work force going, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we should know what is coming to the direct labour force in the Royal Navy in Portsmouth beyond the summer? After all, it is the one remaining direct naval force working under direct Government contract. Will my hon. Friend touch on its future?
Mr. Griffiths : I thank my hon. Friend, who has a more detailed knowledge of the workings of the fleet maintenance base than I do as he gives a great deal of time to close personal study of it. We have a fleet maintenance base in Portsmouth which is part of the Royal Navy. We want a commitment to the Royal Navy--not a hand-to-mouth commitment to giving us something now and something in the future or to finding us something to offset work that we have lost, but a firm commitment that certain vessels will be based on Portsmouth for all their requirements and that when such vessels need repair, refitting and maintenance they will come to Portsmouth.
The Royal Navy as an institution in peace and war is well worth maintaining, developing and protecting. The qualities of quiet efficiency and discipline are the sort of qualities that reflect all that is best in our national life. That is why I am proud to be associated with a city that has such a long-standing link with the Royal Navy. Whatever the future may hold--whether we are to enter the golden uplands of a period of unparalleled peace or to move once again into troubled waters of political upheaval and uncertainty--we want people to be able to say for certain, "The Navy is here." 8.43 pm
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) has urged the Government to remain armed against the Soviet Union until it has adopted, and has been seen to have adopted, liberal ideals. On that basis, the Soviet Union will most certainly remain armed against the current Government as it will see no sign of their adopting such liberal ideals. Having said that, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman because the community that I represent, like the community that he represents, has long and close ties with the Royal Navy and because, like him, I think that the Royal Navy has an important role on which considerable emphasis should be placed. I have been emphasising that role in Royal Navy debates ever since I came to the House, and when we have debated merchant shipping orders I have tried to get a word in for our merchant marine.
All hon. Members who have spoken have referred to foreign affairs, and it is absolutely right that, in debating the Royal Navy, we should have due regard to the international position. I shall not go through all the arguments again, except to say that it is clear that whatever else may divide the House we are not divided in our analysis of what is happening in eastern Europe. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have painted a similar picture. The issue for the House, and the issue that perhaps divides the parties more, is how we should respond.
As I have said before, I think that it is a mistake to debate defence issues as we do--a day for the Navy, a day for the Army and a day for the Air Force--when the question of our strategic deterrent arises under all three headings. We should consider the issues under four
Column 717separate headings and have a debate about Trident and Britain's nuclear capability distinct from our debates on the conventional role of our three armed forces.
I shall refer specifically to the conventional role of the Royal Navy and in doing so I shall allude to what the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said. If we are to consider a peace bonus--I would warmly welcome that, as I am sure would the majority of our fellow citizens--we must consider whether it should come from our strategic deterrent, from the Navy, from the Army or from the Air Force. The services do not all start from the same basis. The Royal Navy's conventional role has borne the bulk of the downturn in defence expenditure over the past 10 years, and I should not wish that expenditure to be diminished further. As we move from a time of real tension between the two super-powers--between NATO and the Warsaw pact--to a time of diminishing tension, the role of the Royal Navy may be enhanced rather than diminished.
Both the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) referred to emphasis being placed on the Royal Navy's unique role within NATO. That is absolutely right. If there is to be more specialisation within NATO--I think that there should be--it is surely right that, with our traditions, heritage, background and special strategic needs as a trading nation and, above all, as an island, we should emphasise the contribution of the Royal Navy. That means funding it, not reducing our commitment to it.
The Royal Navy's contribution in international affairs is unique. It can provide a diplomatic presence or an oblique military presence overseas in a way that the Army and Air Force simply cannot. It is no accident that the role of the Royal Navy has been paramount in every conflict in which we have been involved since the second world war. The Navy is not the service whose role we should diminish if there is to be a peace bonus. The savings should be reaped elsewhere, and the Army of the Rhine is the obvious source.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, the Royal Navy is an instrument of peace rather than aggression. It has a role in fighting the drugs trade and piracy and in assisting in dealing with natural disasters-- a role that cannot be played by any other service. If the emphasis on the roles of the different military arms is to be changed, we should remember that the Royal Navy poses the least aggressive threat to the eastern bloc. If we are to place much more emphasis on real defence rather than pre- emptive strikes, we should be underpinning the role of the Royal Navy.
My constituency, like that of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North has a long relationship with the Royal Navy. We make the fleet auxiliaries and the frigates for the Navy and we repair them, as we did with HMS Southampton. We provide the crews and there is a great tradition of sea- going people on Tyneside. Tyneside is also popular with the Royal Navy because it is a good shore leave. Newcastle is a good place to spend a Saturday night.
My community wants to express its wholehearted support for the Royal Navy and its role in our national
Column 718life. It would be wrong of me not to associate my community with the condemnations from Opposition and Government Front-Bench spokesmen and from Back-Bench Members of those responsible for the deaths of the young bandsmen at Deal. That was a disgusting outrage and vile murder and it is wholeheartedly condemned by me and everyone I represent.
I refer to a number of procurement issues. I listened with considerable interest to the Minister's opening remarks and I broadly welcome them. If, as the Minister said, there is to be a further type 23 procurement round this year, surely it is time to consider the ratios and the further procurement of auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels. Perhaps that issue can be addressed when the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replies. If there are to be more type 23 frigate, the Government must make arrangements for their replenishment and that must mean an AOR3 or perhaps even an AOR4. I hope that the Minister can tell us something about the time scale for that.
Several hon. Members have referred to the role replacements of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. The Minister said that that was under full and detailed consideration. Perhaps when the Minister replies he can tell us about the time scale for that full and detailed consideration. After all, the matter has been under review for a little more than a year. Perhaps those considerations will end soon and perhaps the Minister can tell us when.
I know that the Minister of State will have received a copy of the report of the Public Accounts Committee on reliability and maintainability of defence equipment. The report states : "The Services have estimated that unreliability adds over £1 billion a year to support costs. We accept that not all such costs can be saved, but note that the Department consider 50 per cent. to be a fair goal for the level of achievable savings."
Does that apply specifically to the Royal Navy? Will the Minister place emphasis more on reliability and maintainability in the procurement rounds in future rather than on just the costs of procurement? Clearly, initial costs and eventual costs are not the same, as the PAC recognises. It would be heartening to hear the Minister's response about that.
I hope that when the Minister replies he can tell us something about the Royal Navy's experience with the costs and performance of the Argus which was procured on a non-competitive basis. I also hope he can tell us whether the experience with the Fort Victoria AOR1 contract continues to be happy. Can he assure us that the overall cost to the taxpayer of those contracts is still within budget and that there is no overrun? Can he tell us anything about the National Audit Office report on the Argus? I know that the MOD will want to respond to that as some stage, but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us something about it tonight.
We have had some discussions on broad and sweeping issues and great events. However, with the Minister's indulgence, I want to raise an issue which may seem more trivial, but which is a matter of some importance to our service personnel. I refer to the ceilings of modern warships while they are at sea.
As part of the post-Falklands experience and review, it has been decided to remove the ceilings from modern new British frigates, including the type 23. Those ceilings have been removed from the crew's quarters, workrooms and leisure rooms. The pipework is left exposed and the
Column 719intention is that it should stay exposed. That is not very aesthetically pleasing. The men work in a very small space and it is obvious to anyone who has worked in an industrial environment that exposed pipework collects more dust, debris and filth than unexposed pipework.
I am sure that the idea has been sold to the Treasury as a possible cost saving. However, for aesthetic and housekeeping reasons, would it be possible for the Royal Navy to consider replacing the ceilings, at least until vessels go into combat? If there were small prefabricated panels that could be removed when the warship was at combat stations, that would make life more pleasant for the crew and result in housekeeping savings.
Having made that small and modest plea, which is probably the only point to which I will receive a response, I confirm yet again the support of my community for the Royal Navy. I hope that the peace bonus, which is the British people's due, comes from a service that has been less hard hit by expenditure cuts than the Navy.
Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : Earlier in the debate, several references were made to the new armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am particularly pleased to have been called this evening because this year I am on attachment to the Royal Navy under the auspices of that scheme. Many hon. Members will know that the scheme follows the familiar pattern set by the Industry and Parliament Trust and tries to give hon. Members an understanding of service life and service priorities and problems.
With the abolition of national service and inevitably smaller defence services, it is not surprising that fewer hon. Members have direct experience of service life. I have no direct experience of it. Like other hon. Members, I have to rely on briefing papers and the work of the all- party defence group to enhance my knowledge of defence matters. While commending the work of that group and the valuable visits that it organises and commending those to other hon. Members, I recognise that that experience is, of necessity, limited. The armed forces parliamentary scheme provides a great deal more depth and detail.
During my brief time with the Royal Navy I have had nothing short of total co-operation from everyone. Whether discussing naval strategy with the heady rank of admiral or whether discussing day-to-day problems with junior ranks messes, within the bounds of security, everyone has been totally helpful and willing to state their views. With the profound changes in eastern Europe and the new attitudes that are coming from the Soviet Union, it is vital that, as we consider the role of our forces, Members of Parliament are informed and have views on the role and state of our armed forces. I shall say a few words based on my brief experience with the Navy. I stress that I have no great experience of naval matters, but, throughout a long career in industry as a consultant and writer, I have been able to visit thousands of organisations in all sectors of the economy, and I am able to make comparisons. I shall make just a few comparisons this evening. I shall refer to morale and pay, management style and practice, retirement policy, and the role of women in the Navy.
Column 720The first matter concerns morale and pay. In many years of talking to people in many organisations, I have come to realise that, almost invariably, wherever and whatever the organisation, people consider that they should be paid more and that morale could be improved. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to know that the Navy is no exception to that rule. Many people consider that they should be paid more and that allowances should be higher and more flexible. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body's recommendation of a 10.9 per cent. average increase will be welcomed in the Navy, as will retention incentives and the increase in the X factor. That body recognises the problems, but it will not wholly solve them. Within the Royal Navy there is a certain amount of discontent about allowances. Having seen what I have in the Navy, I think that the Minister would do well to examine this matter a little more closely. Inevitably, as the number of our dependencies around the world declines and as our worldwide commitments are cut, there is not the same opportunity for sailors to visit foreign ports. Traditionally, many sailors join the Navy to see the world, and they are understandably disappointed when they find that their opportunities to do so are nowhere near as numerous as they were in the past. I would not for a second suggest that the conduct and deployment of the Navy should be determined by sailors' desire to see the world, but the Minister should take into account the importance of shore visits as seen by ratings when looking at other motivational factors in Navy life. I do not believe that morale is low or that pay is bad in the Royal Navy, but there is some room for the adjustment of allowances, particularly when service men are based away from their family homes, and more account should be paid to the importance to sailors of shore leave on foreign visits.
The second matter concerns management practice and style. In recent years, throughout the economy, particularly industry, great emphasis has been placed on management practice. Every successful manager recognises that people in all walks of life today need not only to be informed but to participate in decision-making processes. Successful organisations involve people. They are organisations in which authority must be earned and in which managers at all levels lead by example. The days when the boss, whoever he was, could rely solely on his position in a hierarchy have gone, and rightly so. Only a fool pretends that the same management practices can apply in the armed forces as in industry.
In a battle it is neither possible nor desirable to arrive at decisions by consensus. We must have strong leaders and obedient followers. But not all situations are battles. From what I have seen in my brief time in the Navy, I wonder whether there is not more room for consultation and involvement of junior ranks. There is a danger that hierarchical structures, the officer class system and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 can sometimes--I put it no higher than "sometimes"--be substitutes for good management practice. That can have severe consequences for morale and retention.
The third matter concerns retirement ages. There is justifiable concern in the Navy about difficulties in recruiting, training and retaining suitable staff. Those problems are not unique to the Navy. Industry, education, medicine and almost every branch of commerce face them on a day-to-day basis. The problems will not get better ; they will get worse. Increasingly, most organisations will need more intelligent and better- trained staff.
Column 721Demographic trends will make the situation worse. Competition for highly trained and motivated people will become more and more severe. Like other organisations, the Navy will find it increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit, train and retain suitable staff. Therefore, it seems strange that the Navy sometimes forces highly trained but competent people to leave the service at a comparatively early age and against their wishes.
Throughout the economy, there is a need to be more flexible about retirement ages. Not everyone is ready for retirement at the same age. Throughout industry and commerce, there is a need to retain people longer and to utilise the valuable skills that they have acquired. The Navy's present policy is partly illogical. We should be seeking to retain people and skills, not the reverse. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that matter.
The role of women in the Navy has already been mentioned on several occasions and I wish to mention it again. The Navy can be rightly proud of the Women's Royal Naval Service, which does an invaluable job. However, I wonder if it does enough. Not least for reasons that I mentioned earlier, we need to examine the role of women throughout the economy, and the Navy is no exception. It is wrong and wasteful that women are prevented from performing those tasks that they are willing and able to perform. Many Wrens wish to go to sea--almost all of those that I have met do--and the Navy should face that challenge. The Navy can recruit and retain high- quality women, but it is not tapping that potential sufficiently. Industry is changing its attitudes. There is a woman Prime Minister ; there are many first-rate women managers in industry ; but Wrens are not allowed to go to sea.
I appreciate that there are arguments for that, and hon. Members have argued against the deployment of women at sea because of the strength of women, the need for separate accommodation, the inevitable male and female relationships that would develop, the feelings of wives and of husbands left at home and the moral arguments about putting women in combative roles.
This is the age of equal opportunity and the Navy must be an equal opportunity employer. The Dutch, the Israelis, the New Zealanders, the Australians, the Americans and the Norwegians all allow women to go to sea in certain types of ship. I hope that Ministers and that the Navy Board will quickly adopt a policy of encouraging Wrens to go to sea in non- combative ships. I offer those suggestions because I believe that the Navy would be improved by them. All forms of human organisation can be improved and while the Navy is no exception, I have been impressed by what I have seen of it. It is dedicated, loyal and fully professional.
The House has a duty to ensure that there is not only a constant search for efficiency and economy within the Navy but that the Navy continues to receive the resources to enable it to continue to do such an excellent job.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) : The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) said that some of his military experience was derived from his experience in the Industry and Parliament Trust. My similar experience with that organisation was with Cadbury-Schweppes. I observed more chocolate soldiers than real soldiers. Although, like the hon. Gentleman, I
Column 722have not served in the armed forces, being a member of the Select Committee on Defence--of which the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) is an able and probably the best Chairman, a comment that I hope will not do him irreparable harm with his party or myself with mine--and the experience that I have derived from the North Atlantic Assembly, particularly in its relationship in recent years with eastern Europe, gives me a perspective that may be relevant to supplement the experiences of people who have been in the military services.
I do not need to speak with a sense of embarrassment from the Opposition Benches. The nightmare of the 1980s is thankfully over. That is when my party drifted into the periphery of politics, especially in defence. I was berated for my speech in the previous defence debate for wanting greater consensus on defence issues. That is something that I do not regard as worthy of public criticism. It is important that we eventually return to the concept of politics ceasing at the water's edge. Perhaps we are not yet there, but we are far less apart than we were before last October.
As someone who has studied public opinion polls, and noting Labour's new defence policy, I am confident that no one would believe that my party adapted its defence policy for other than the noblest motives, unrelated to its electoral considerations. The Independent poll of a couple of weeks ago showed that no more than 12 per cent. of people support what amounts to unilateralism. When members of the public were asked whether they thought that Britain should keep some nuclear weapons so long as the Russians had theirs, 76 per cent., including 70 per cent. of Labour voters, said that it should. We wish ultimately to see a world in which nuclear weapons have been eliminated, so long as there is some parity in conventional forces and so long as Third-world nations, which have been acquiring chemical and nuclear weapons at an alarming rate, are brought into an arms control regime. In the meantime, my party has widely adopted a policy that gives it flexibility in its approach to arms control negotiations, and I hope that when it is elected to office our nuclear weapons will become part of a START 2 process. That would be an intelligent way to proceed. I do not want to see Britain adopting the electorally unpopular and pretty stupid policy of throwing in its nuclear weapons in advance of other nations abandoning theirs. The great problem that Governments of all political hues have had, certainly since the second world war, has been the matching of commitments and resources. That problem will become even more difficult. During the cold war it was relatively easy to amass resources commensurate with the threat, but now that the cold war appears to be over, it is more difficult for Governments to retain a level of defence expenditure commensurate with the threat. However, the present Government certainly have not just woken up to the fact that they must cut defence expenditure. According to a Defence Select Committee report about a year ago, the Committee estimated that, by 1990-91, if current trends continued, defence expenditure would fall by 3.9 per cent. of gross domestic product. The Government have been cutting defence expenditure for one reason or another. To the critics who say that NATO has been doing nothing to respond to initiatives, I point out that, over the years--this can be taken one way or
Column 723another--almost every NATO Government, including that of the United States, has been cutting substantially the percentage of expenditure devoted to defence.
When I hear that somehow all the initiatives derive from President Gorbachev, I want to tell people that they should look at the NATO summit communique issued in May last year. If they do so, they will see that the initiatives of President Bush last year and his recently announced initiatives make those of the Soviet Union pale almost into insignificance.
Quite recently, I was in Vienna observing the CFE negotiations. Which alliance was it that produced the first draft CFE treaty? Which alliance leaked that draft treaty to the Soviet Union so that it might see what our thinking was? I do not think that we have to view our alliance with any shame as to its reticence about developing its arms control proposals. There has been a remarkable reaction. Bearing in mind the difficulties faced by 16 sovereign democratic nations in somehow calibrating their security policies, and in doing so swiftly, I believe that NATO has had remarkable success.
Bearing in mind also the fact that peace is breaking out, the diminished perception of the threat, the economic and domestic political pressures, and the pressures that will emerge from the CFE treaty, one realises that the Government will have difficulties in reconciling their commitments with their resources. Some very hard decisions will have to be made.
I am not within that spectrum of opinion that argues that nothing should be done, that the threat is still enormous, that Gorbachev may be overthrown, and that therefore we can settle down to another cold war in a couple of months' time, but nor do I adhere remotely to the euphoric attitude that, as peace has broken out, swords must instantly be transformed into ploughshares. We must be imaginative ; we must take advantage of the situation. But we must proceed with some prudence, because arms decisions, including procurement decisions, taken now will set the agenda for the year 2000. One cannot suddenly and swiftly produce weapons as fast as Spitfires were produced during the second world war.
I agree that we must be prudent and cautious. The NOP survey in The Independent of 20 January asked :
"In the light of recent developments in eastern Europe, which of these statements comes closest to your own view?"
It continued :
"The threat of war is now less, so Britain can safely reduce the amount of money it spends on defence"
How many people agreed with that? One might think that it would be 80 per cent., but in fact 29 per cent. agreed with the statement that because of developments in eastern Europe we can cut defence expenditure. That puts the Government way out of step with public opinion.
The survey continued :
"No one can be sure what will happen in the future, so Britain should keep up its defence spending."
Some 63 per cent. agreed with that, including 58 per cent. of Labour voters. While we must be imaginative, it is necessary to be reasonably prudent. How we give that dichotomy the right proportions is something that others must decide.
I listened to the debate on eastern Europe last week. I hoped to catch Mr. Speaker's eye but was unsuccessful. In that debate, the leader of the Liberal party was attacked