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House of Commons

Tuesday 22 January 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions

DEFENCE

Gulf Crisis

1. Dr. Kim Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many merchant ships the Government have requisitioned for the purposes of transportation during the present Gulf crisis.

5. Mr. Hardy : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the total strength of United Kingdom service men currently stationed in the middle east ; and what forces have been sent by the Community member states.

6. Mrs. Currie : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about developments in the Gulf.

9. Mr. Hind : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the deployment of British forces in the Gulf.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King) : We have now deployed to the Gulf the 1st Armoured Division, Royal Air Force Tornado, Jaguar and other aircraft, four destroyers and frigates, mine counter- measures ships and Royal Fleet Auxiliary support vessels. That totals some 35,000 service personnel. Deployment of those forces has involved the chartering of more than 100 vessels but not the requisitioning of any merchant shipping.

In addition to the substantial United States forces and those of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, many European countries are involved. France has committed naval, land and air forces. Italy has committed naval and air forces. Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain have sent navel vessels and Portugal is providing naval transport for the United Kingdom.

Since the conflict commenced, the Royal Air Force has carried out more than 400 operational sorties as part of the allied campaign to liberate Kuwait. I regret to inform the House that a further Tornado aircraft based in Saudi Arabia was reported missing this morning, and the families of the crew have been notified. Four Tornado aircraft have been lost in enemy action since the campaign began. The air campaign is continuing today. As a further illustration of the level of co-operation between the allies, I am pleased to announce that a party of New Zealand defence force medical personnel will be attached to British forces in the Gulf. That contribution is to be greatly welcomed.


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Dr. Howells : I am sure that the whole House will echo my regret that the crew of a Tornado have been reported missing. I am sure that hon. Members hope that they will be safe. Why is such a tiny proportion of chartered transport shipping registered under the British flag? If those men, wherever they be from, are brave enough to sail into a war zone in the Gulf, they should be able to enjoy the conditions of work offered by registration under the British flag. It is a disgrace that they are not. If they are prepared to die for this country, they should enjoy the albeit too few benefits that go with the job.

Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman may know that the president of the General Council of British Shipping has made that point. British shipping is not unwilling to be involved but is simply busily engaged on other contracts. It has been possible to requisition ships to meet our needs without asking British companies to break their other contracts. This has been a successful deployment, in which a significant number of ships have been involved. We are grateful for the co-operation of all those involved.

Mr. Hardy : As many in Europe oppose the Hussein regime in Iraq, deplore the aggression in Kuwait and voted for the removal of the aggressor from Kuwait, and given the disproportionate and significant contribution made by British service men in the Gulf, does not the Minister believe that it would now be appropriate for him and his colleagues to suggest to our European partners that they must reconsider their position, perhaps in response to their votes at the United Nations and the contribution that their nationals, as well as ours, made in building up the military capacity of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. King : I confirm that we have encouraged the maximum contribution from our European allies. I have attended two meetings of the Western European Union at which we emphasised that it was important in the present position that Europe be seen to make an effective contribution and to support not merely with its votes but in a real way the efforts that have been made by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and, pre-eminently, the United States. Europe should be present, too. In addition to the contributions of forces that I have described, we have been grateful for a significant number of contributions of hardware, vehicles and ammunition from some of our NATO allies.

Mrs. Currie : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appalling and inhumane treatment of our prisoners of war in Iraq demonstrates yet again exactly what sort of cruel and brutal dictator we are up against? Should not the message that goes from here to Saddam Hussein today be that his actions will make us not less but more determined to see him off? Can my right hon. Friend report any progress in making contact with our prisoners of war by the Red Cross or the Red Crescent or one of the other voluntary humanitarian organisations?

Mr. King : I very much agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. As I advised the House last night, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross were here yesterday. As they requested, they were given access to the Iraqis in detention. They then intended to return to Geneva and seek to make immediate contact with Baghdad. I have not yet had a report today on what success they have had. I advise the House--it endorses what my hon. Friend said--that I was speaking this


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morning to General Sir Peter de la Billie re, our commander in the middle east, who this afternoon was to receive the first visitors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They are the advance party for the medical facilities that we are preparing in order to honour our obligations under the Geneva convention to make sure that any Iraqi prisoners of war receive proper medical treatment if they need it. I confirm that the representatives of the ICRC have visited Saudi Arabia and inspected the arrangements that we propose to make for any prisoners of war we take. The committee said that it was very satisfied and impressed with the arrangements that we are making. That further underlines the fact that we are absolutely entitled to expect that treatment for our prisoners of war too.

Mr. Trotter : I refer my right hon. Friend to the case of Flight Lieutenant Adrian Nichol, whose parents come from my constituency. Our thoughts are with the families of all those who are prisoners at this time. The bravery shown by Adrian and his colleagues is matched by the bravery shown by his parents. Their relief that he survived being shot down has been replaced by their anxiety about his treatment as a prisoner. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that there can be no qualification whatever of the obligation to apply the Geneva convention? Is he aware that the Iraqi ambassador said to me this morning that there was a way of not applying the convention? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that is not true and that Iraq must apply the convention?

Mr. King : That is absolutely right. I know that my hon. Friend has taken the closest interest in the case on behalf of his constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Nichol, and that he has seen the Iraqi ambassador. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right to say that Iraq is a party to the Geneva convention and it cannot pick and choose which bits of the convention it applies. We demand without qualification that, just as we shall extend to any Iraqi prisoners of war the rights to which they are entitled under the convention, because we are a party to it, those rights must be extended to our prisoners of war. I hope that the message has got through to Baghdad that, far from being helpful in the remotest way to the Iraqi cause or undermining the allied resolve, showing the films has only added to the determination of the population of Italy, the United States and Britain to back up our forces at this dangerous time.

Mr. O'Neill : I echo the Secretary of State's sentiments on that point. The House is united in our detestation of the manner in which our prisoners have been treated. I also put on record our respect for the bravery of all the men, including those who got back, and our appreciation of the work of those who have enabled them to get into the air and to make sorties at the fantastic rate that they have achieved.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an assessment of what the cost of deploying our troops has been? We have had a number of figures--some gross, some net. What success has he had in securing support from other countries, in particular Germany, which by treaty is incapable of participating in the exercise, and from Japan, which, by dint of its wealth and its interest in oil, has more than a right to make contributions, not only to the United States but to the support of our forces?


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Mr. King : The hon. Member knows these subjects very well and is right to emphasise the difference between the gross and net costs. We are certainly seeking the maximum contributions from those who, for one reason or another, have not felt able to make military contributions to the allied effort, to ensure that they at least make the maximum financial contribution. We have already received in different ways such contributions from Japan and Germany and we shall see how we can maximise those. We have had host nation support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As for the overall figure, we have already had authority in the House for a further £450 million. I have told the House that we think that there is a daily cost of £3.6 million. I am examining those figures. I shall write in greater detail to the hon. Member and place that letter in the Library of the House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about standing together on such matters. There is a need for us, as a country, to stand together. I regretted having to inform the House about the loss of a further Tornado. I told the House that the families had been advised that the air crew are missing. Where we can, we propose to adopt a policy of releasing the names of the air crew as soon as possible, but only with the family's consent. In the latest case, we have not yet had the agreement of the families involved ; although I know that the media will be most concerned to have access to the names, it is precisely because of the families' fear of harassment from the media that they are nervous about allowing the names to go forward. Therefore, I stress, as I did last night, that we should stand together as a country at a dangerous time. I am sure that the media will understand the point that I am making.

2. Mr. Burns : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of members of the armed forces in the Gulf are women ; and what duties they undertake.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : More than 800 service women are serving with their units in the Gulf. They perform a range of duties.

Mr. Burns : In paying tribute both to the men and to the women of our armed forces in the Gulf, may I ask my hon. Friend whether, if a land war developed, there would be any conceivable circumstances in which women serving officers in the armed forces would be fighting in the front line?

Mr. Hamilton : There are no women employed in combat units in the ground forces, but there might well be women employed further back from the front line ; they would have weapons for their own self defence and expect to use them.

Mr. Corbett : Is the Minister aware of complaints by women as well as men serving in the Gulf about the great delays in receiving post from the United Kingdom? One of my constituents tells me that post offices accept parcels for delivery only at first-class rates. Will the Minister undertake to look at that problem?

Mr. Hamilton : We have already considered the question of parcels and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if parcels are sent by the inland rate they will reach the Gulf in about 10 days. There are a number of post offices where staff still do not seem to understand the position and thus talk in terms of charging people an air mail rate,


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which can be high if there are many goods in the parcel. We are concentrating hard on the letter post and doing all that we can to maintain a swift service.

Dame Peggy Fenner : Following complaints by the Kent Gulf Forces Support Group, we have been in touch with the Post Office, whose representatives have assured us that they are issuing instructions to all counter staff today so that they give the right help to the wives of our service men. Will the Department ensure that, whether it is a departmental or Post Office matter, the "blueys"--the special forms that can be sent forces mail--are available because, unfortunately, supplies ran out a day or so ago? I know that my right hon. Friend will accept that the families have enough anxiety without little things like this to niggle them.

Mr. Hamilton : I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her advice in relation to the instruction given by the Post Office. Several hon. Members have remarked to me that post offices have run out of blueys and the matter is being investigated. I suspect that the difficulty arises from maldistribution, as about 6 million were issued to the Post Office. We suspect that there may be quite large quantities at some offices, but none at others.

British Force Reductions (Germany)

3. Mr. Redmond : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about reductions in British forces in Germany.

Mr. King : As I said in the House last night, we are continuing to study with our allies the proposals for change in the structure and deployment of our armed forces--proposals that have emerged from the work on "Options for Change".

We intend to proceed with the implementation of rationalisation proposals and other support changes in areas that do not affect our efforts in the Gulf. We shall make further announcements about our proposals in due course.

Mr. Redmond : I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Does he agree that, in the light of Government statements that it is the British nuclear deterrent which has maintained the peace in Europe, it would make economic sense to bring the British forces home, in view of the escalating cost of keeping them in the Gulf?

Mr. King : I am not sure that I entirely follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's question. Our defence policy is well balanced, as set out in our proposals in "Options for Change". Of course, there is a very grave situation in the Gulf and the very uncertain developments in the Soviet Union may also pose problems, but I believe that the approach that we have adopted is the right one to ensure that, whatever changes are made, a strong defence capability for this country will be ensured at a time of great uncertainty in the world.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : My right hon. Friend's answer concerning the work done under "Options for Change" will be widely welcomed on both sides of the House. We recall that in announcing the exercise he warned us that the situation in Europe, as well as that in the middle east, should be taken fully into account. Can he


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reassure the House today that work on "Options for Change" will not be resumed until the lessons of the Gulf have been fully absorbed?

Mr. King : On that matter I can give a partial assurance. Certainly, I am very concerned to see that in areas where our capability in the Gulf could be affected, in the sense of a need to ensure the provision of adequate resources, the situation is not affected by our work. My hon. Friend will understand, however, that there are other areas involving the infrastructure of the services. There would be absolutely no point, for instance, in keeping redundant airfields. There are also other activities that need to be addressed. I am thinking, for instance, of the scale of some of our infrastructure in Germany. We have to make sure that we can sustain what is, without question, a very expensive commitment in playing our full part in the liberation of Kuwait. To that end, we must ensure that we do not waste money in areas in which expenditure simply cannot be justified.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Secretary of State agree that the aspiration of all parties in the House to reduce expenditure on defence needs to be tempered with realism, especially at this time? Would not it be irresponsible to make long-term judgments about force levels before the operations in the Gulf had been completed and the current uncertainties in the Soviet Union had reached a stage at which a considered judgment might be made as to the consequences? Does he agree that this is a moment at which a very considerable degree of caution is to be found in the steps being taken within the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. King : We have approached this whole exercise with a very considerable degree of caution. When I made my statement on 25 July I said, in relation to developments in the Warsaw pact--which many people might have felt at that time were moving in an entirely hopeful direction--that, while it was clear that there were opportunities, there were also risks in Europe and, elsewhere, some worrying trends with regard to the proliferation of missiles. I think that now, with the impact of Scud missiles in the Gulf, people understand why I warned about the risks of the unexpected and about the need to ensure the maintenance of an adequate defence capability.

There are major lessons to be learnt from the Gulf situation, particularly about the strength of the Army units and the amount of reinforcements that may be necessary to ensure that they have the required fighting capability. We are having to draw on reserves as well. I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that we shall learn those lessons.

Low Flying

4. Mr. Amos : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the amount and safety of low-flying activity over Northumberland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle) : My Department's aim is to distribute military low flying over the widest practicable area of the United Kingdom, including Northumberland. The amount is, however, kept to the minimum necessary to meet our requirements and all aspects of flight safety are kept under continuous review.


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Mr. Amos : As one who has always accepted the necessity for low-flying activity, but who has made representations about it on behalf of constituents, may I ask my hon. Friend to pass on to the RAF the whole-hearted support of the people of Northumberland for the skill, courage and professionalism shown by RAF pilots? One of the prisoners of war comes from the north-east, so will my hon. Friend confirm that, unless Iraq strictly adheres to the Geneva convention in all circumstances and at all times, Saddam Hussein will be tried as a war criminal and executed with no ifs and buts?

Mr. Carlisle : I am grateful to my hon. Friend who has always argued for his constituents. Low flying can be a nuisance, but it is the key to success in many of our operations in the Gulf. Had they not practised this difficult skill, our men and planes would be at greater risk. I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the courage and dedication of the RAF, whose feats merit our admiration. On my hon. Friend's last point, I can confirm that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave the sternest warning that those who violate the Geneva convention will be held responsible.

Mr. Beith : Now that the operational value of low flying has been clearly demonstrated, and the skills involved so courageously used, does the Minister share my hope that other areas of the country will be keen to share the burden of low-flying training that Northumberland now carries?

Mr. Carlisle : As the hon. Gentleman knows, we aim to spread low flying as wide as possible, so that there is as little disturbance as possible. I know that the House has immense admiration for the feats of the RAF in the Gulf and the skills that the pilots need have been learnt over many hours of practice over the hon. Gentleman's constituency and those of other hon. Members representing such areas. We are grateful for the tolerance of the public, who I believe now understand why that training is so vital. Those skills are essential if we are to press home attacks in the face of fierce opposition.

Mr. John Greenway : Low-flying Tornados over Northumberland on training exercises quickly arrive over North Yorkshire and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) said, they have been the cause of some nuisance and inconvenience. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware, however, that the people of North Yorkshire salute the courage and bravery of our air crews and their valiant efforts in the past few days in the Gulf, and are convinced that everything that the Ministry of Defence has said about the tactical value of low flying has been proved and vindicated?

Mr. Carlisle : I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I repeat that we are grateful to the public for their tolerance of low-flying practice. As I said, the skills involved are crucial in the Gulf war and we should remember that lesson in the future.

HMS Warspite

7. Mr. McCartney : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the reason for his decision to decommission HMS Warspite.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : As my right hon. Friend announced to the House last year, we envisage a future


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submarine force of about 16 boats, around three quarters of which will be nuclear powered. As there were 17 nuclear submarines in the fleet on 25 July, a number of older boats, including HMS Warspite, are being decommissioned.

Mr. McCartney : Have not the Government have already wasted £100 million in a refit for this submarine, despite the fact that they knew in their private reports of the likelihood of the need to decommission because of problems with its reactor? Will the Minister advise the House what will be the cost of decommissioning Warspite, and are there any other submarines of a similar type which in the next few years will have to be decommissioned because of problems with their nuclear reactors?

Mr. Hamilton : I cannot comment on the material state of nuclear submarines. However, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are decommissioning the oldest submarines that we have, which seems to be a very sensible thing to do in terms of taking out those that are least capable.

Dame Janet Fookes : While there may be a case for decommissioning this particular nuclear submarine, may I invite my hon. Friend to reconsider the wisdom of reducing the nuclear submarine fleet in the light of the uncertainties in the world at present and the fleet's undoubted flexibility?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, I fully accept what my hon. Friend says about the flexibility of nuclear submarines. However, under "Options for Change" we have given serious consideration to the United Kingdom's requirements in the light of changed circumstances in Europe. In this context we believe that 12 nuclear submarines is about the right number.

Reservists

8. Mr. Cohen : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the call-up of reservists and his policy on conscription.

11. Mr. Bill Walker : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he can give details of the Royal Air Force reservists who have been invited to enlist for the Gulf.

Mr. Tom King : Some 1,200 reservists are already making an important contribution to Operation Granby and I have been impressed by the excellent way in which they have responded. The largest category are Army medical reservists needed for hospitals in the United Kingdom and the Gulf ; an aeromedical evacuation squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, has specialist skills in moving injured by air. Members of No. 4624 movements squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, were called out recently to help with the huge logistical task. We will shortly be calling out about 450 members of the Royal Fleet Reserve who have expressed a willingness to serve. We have no plans whatsoever to introduce conscription.

Mr. Cohen : Were not we told that this war would be over in days rather than weeks and then weeks rather than months? Now the Prime Minister says that we are not to expect a quick victory. Were not we told of the success of the high-tech war machine, only for the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to tell us that the Scud launchers were plywood? Similarly, after a Somme-in-the-sand land


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battle, will not we be introducing conscription whatever the Minister says today? This Government cannot offer our boys a job, but they can arrange their deaths.

Mr. King : The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, since I have already answered it precisely, is no, Sir.

Mr. Bill Walker : Is my right hon. Friend aware that members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve who thus far have been requested to serve have been delighted to do so? Is he also aware that other members of both these organisations would quite gladly give up their time for this service? This is the result of their having been volunteers in every sense, but there are occasions when some employers may not understand their enthusiasm. I hope that the Minister and his Department will handle this matter so as to make it easy for these volunteer attitudes not to give offence to employers.

Mr. King : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I did have worries as to how easy it would be to recruit volunteer reserves and for the reservists to go. I have been deeply impressed by the tremendous willingness of those concerned. I have given the figures to the House. We now have 1,200 reservists coming out of their previous occupations and giving their help in critical areas where it is needed. It has been most impressive and encouraging support to receive.

Mr. Allen : Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the reservists who are about to be called up, to the public and to Parliament whether the reservists will be engaged in what is technically an armed conflict or whether Britain will declare war officially? Will he assure the House that before war is officially declared, Parliament will be able to ratify and endorse that decision?

Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. We are talking about medical personnel--the aeromedical evacuation squadron, which will accompany casualties back to Cyprus and Britain and which will certainly not be involved in conflict, and the movements squadron, which will be involved in helping to ensure that supplies move smoothly through British airfields and along the logistic chain to the Gulf, which will also clearly not be involved in conflict.

Mr. Allen : In view of the inadequacy of that answer, I give notice that I shall seek to raise the question on the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I regret that the hon. Gentleman cannot do that because he did not ask the original question.

Mr. David Evans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that our reservists and forces serving in the Gulf will be heartened by the almost unanimous vote in the House last night? Does he further agree that it is sad that it could not be a unanimous vote as 34 Opposition Members could not find it in their hearts to vote in support of our forces? Is it not interesting that they are exactly the same people who will not pay their community charge, and is it not a fact that they do not respect international law-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman's question is miles wide of the main question.


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Mr. King : Those who were unable to support the motion and the amendment last night must speak for themselves. I am concerned about what my hon. Friend says and I would simply say that when I spoke to General de la Billie re this morning and assured him of the tremendous vote of the majority of the House in support of the task that we have asked him and the forces under him to undertake, he said that that would be the most enormous encouragement to them in the challenging time that they face. I express my appreciation to all those who voted in that majority.

Mr. Reid : Does the Secretary of State accept that the uncertainty faced by the reservists and, perhaps more importantly, by their families and the families of those deployed in the Gulf must give us cause for consideration? Does he accept that a key element of the morale of reservists and troops already deployed is the security of knowing that their families here in Britain are well and sensitively cared for by the rest of the community and by the Government? Will he acknowledge the tribute that we have paid to those families and the magnificent role that is played in caring for them by the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association? Finally, what do the Government intend to do and what have they already done to assist the SSAFA in caring for those service families? Will he join me in urging members of the public to do everything possible to assist the SSAFA in the important and magnificent role that it is playing?

Mr. King : I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made in his supplementary question. I join him in paying a warm tribute to the SSAFA. I repeat what I said yesterday about the setting up of the Gulf trust. That will go through to the service benevolent funds and will indirectly help the SSAFA to help the organisations to do the best that they can for the families involved. I also join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our greatest admiration for the families of all those in the Gulf. Our thoughts are with them.

EH101 Helicopters

10. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will confirm his order for 25 utility EH101 helicopters.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : Decisions on support helicopters have been delayed by the need to take into account the implications of changes in Europe. I hope that the position will be clearer in some months' time.

Mr. Colvin : Is not it a pity that the Government cannot re-endorse the order for 25 support helicopters and authorise Westland to proceed with phase 2 of the project definition? I do not believe that "Options for Change" should be used as an excuse for further delay, particularly as experience in the Gulf and in Northern Ireland shows that our support helicopter force is seriously extended. In the Gulf in particular it has had to call upon the Royal Navy to help it out.

Mr. Clark : I note that my hon. Friend has played a very conspicuous and distinguished part in advocating the choice of this aircraft. However, he very well knows that project definition work is examining in detail the Royal Air


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Force's foreseen requirements and it has to do so against a whole range of options and to establish more firmly the costs and the risks involved. The analysis of these findings is taking longer than was expected.

Gulf Crisis

12. Mr. Batiste asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the performance of Vickers plc in supporting the British forces in the Gulf.

Mr. Alan Clark : Yes. Vickers has made considerable effort to support the British forces in the Gulf both in providing spare parts and modification kits. It has sent a team of its own technical advisers to the theatre. Both my Department and the forces on the spot are very satisfied with its performance.

Mr. Batiste : Is not it a fact that one of the lessons that can be learnt from what my right hon. Friend has just said is that there is and will remain a continuing need for a strong and flexible United Kingdom defence industry that is capable of supporting United Kingdom forces wherever in the world they may be deployed?

Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend is right. Certainly, the support that we have received from Vickers is of the greatest importance and has impressed not only our forces but those of our allies.

Mr. Boyes : Is the Minister aware that recently I visited Vickers in Newcastle and saw both the excellent Challenger tank and the repair and recovery vehicles? I also saw on video the successful operations in the desert. If, unfortunately, ground forces are to be used in major action the Challenger tank will ably support British forces. Will the Minister join me in sending a message of confidence to the management and skilled work force in Newcastle?

Mr. Clark : Yes, very gladly. I particularly welcome the hon. Member mentioning the armoured recovery vehicles which are being sent out to the Gulf as fast as possible. They are in full production at that factory. We have the heaviest and most powerful of all the armoured recovery vehicles available to the allied forces and these have been the subject of very favourable comment on all sides.

Mr. Conway : Will my right hon. Friend pay a particular tribute to those civilians who have remained in the Gulf to adapt and maintain the main battle tanks, particularly those who are associated with the engines that Vickers use, which are made in Shrewsbury and which make the British- made battle tank far superior to any alternative? They are doing a superb job and will not let our forces down.

Mr. Clark : Yes, indeed. Their specialist knowledge is invaluable and I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to their steadfastness in staying on in the Gulf.

Polaris

13. Mr. Douglas : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current repair and maintenance programme of the Polaris fleet.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : It is not our practice to publish details of nuclear submarine refit, repair or maintenance programmes.


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Mr. Douglas : Is the Minister therefore quite sanguine about the press reports relating to the technological failures in the reactors of the Polaris PWR? Will he comment on the vexatious problems that we are having at Rosyth in relation to the disposal of nuclear waste? Will he take it from me that it is quite unacceptable that Rosyth should be the sole base for the disposal of nuclear waste and that the Plymouth and Devonport waste should be redistributed to Scotland? Will he comment on these observations?

Mr. Hamilton : We do not comment on the material state of our nuclear submarines. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question of operating any of our submarines unless we are convinced that they can be operated safely. The issue of the nuclear waste sites has still to be decided and in the meantime we are quite happy with the provision that has been made for the disposal of waste from nuclear submarines.

Mr. Franks : May I take the opportunity provided by the hon. Member's question to remind the Minister that the Polaris fleet was designed and built in Barrow? If there is to be a change of policy and location for the repair and maintenance of that fleet will he bear in mind the ability and skills that are readily available in Barrow?

Mr. Hamilton : I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that Barrow is very interested in the future refitting of nuclear submarines.

Submarines

14. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received concerning improvements to the technology available to Royal Navy submarines to enable them to identify fishing vessels and their nets in the vicinity of their operations.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : A large number of firms have submitted proposals for pinger devices that will make fishing nets more easily detectable to dived submarines. Trials carried out with such a device last month were a success, and a further series of trials will take place in the near future.

Mr. Wigley : In view of the tragic accident off the Scottish coast not so long ago, and following a series of accidents in the Irish sea involving Welsh fishing vessels, will the Minister ensure that all the resources necessary will be provided to ensure that such devices are made available as soon as possible, to avoid any further loss of life?

Mr. Hamilton : I give that undertaking and assure the hon. Gentleman that a competitive evaluation of a range of commercially produced devices will take place early this year.


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