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Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman may be confusing the difference between the settlements which were arranged between the parties and those in which people took the passage of law through tribunals to the furthest possible extent. There are differences between awards made
Column 1088recently by certain tribunals and cases in which women, who were quite within their rights, negotiated with the forces, which regard themselves as responsible employers, and reached what I regard as sensible settlements. It is a finite matter. As I said, the employment practices changed in August 1990, so we should see an eventual end to such cases.
Those matters are peripheral to the main impact of the work of men and women in our forces. Women in the Navy are contributing at every level. Not a single hon. Member could visit a Royal Navy ship and, standing on the bridge, fail to recognise the contribution that women are making to the Royal Navy. The amalgamation of the Wrens into the Royal Navy allows women no longer to be subject to any discrimination over rank. I would not mind seeing--my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) may regret the day--a woman admiral in the Royal Navy. I would not mind a woman driving a ship.
Mr. Hanley : I am sure that my hon. Friend would love to serve on such a ship. But there is no need for all-Wren or all-male ships. Men and women work extremely well together. There are only some areas in which women cannot serve, such as on minesweepers, where the accommodation is far too small, and in submarines, which were not built to allow separation for the purposes of privacy. Times have changed since my hon. Friend served on HMS Eagle. His service was not only gallant but long, and I look forward to his advice in future--but on this subject he is on a losing wicket.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of women afloat, will he consider the possibility that the answers that he is given by serving officers and others in our armed services are conditioned by the feeling that perhaps their answers should be politically correct ?
Mr. Hanley : I am afraid that I must tell my hon. Friend that I do not regard it as "politically correct" to open up the opportunity for the armed forces of this country to accept those who are talented and intelligent and want to serve, and to choose from 100 per cent. of the population rather than from less than 50 per cent. The opportunities afforded to women have shown that they can achieve the highest level of national life, and there is no reason why they cannot serve in the armed forces, where that is possible. There are certainly areas in which it is still impossible for women to serve. We understand that, but the number of such areas is falling dramatically.
We have a woman monarch, and we have had a woman Prime Minister and a woman lord mayor of London. I see no reason why we cannot have-- [Hon. Members :-- "And a woman Speaker."] And a woman Speaker, indeed. I must mention that. There is no reason why we cannot have a woman first sea lord in due course.
Indeed, we have a Deputy Speaker who is not only a woman, but a lady as well. I must mention your interest in
Column 1089the Royal Navy, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that, by convention, you are not allowed to make speeches in this place. Your interest in the Royal Navy over the years has been as great as that of any hon. Member--indeed, greater--and you have led several delegations to me in the interests of the Royal Navy. I hope that you do not mind if I break that confidence.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : On a serious point, now that we have discussed the roles that women have played in the life of the nation, one thing is missing from the list. When will Royal Navy ships be provided with woman-sized equipment ? For instance, fire fighting suits are much too big and cumbersome for women to join firefighting teams and some of the shoring-up equipment is far too heavy for women to lift. Problems have been reported from the decks of many ships because of women's inability to lift the heavy loads and to take part in some of the ordinary team workings of the ship. Either some of the equipment will have to be made smaller and adapted for use by female sailors, or women will continue to be discriminated against on the mess decks of our ships. That serious problem was reported to me extensively during my time with the Navy last year.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right ; practical problems have been inherited from times past, and changes are being made. My hon. Friend mentioned firefighting suits. Not long ago I was on HMS Norfolk during a firefighting exercise, and women were taking a full part, wearing suits that fitted them perfectly.
Mr. Hanley : I do not think it was. In any event, I believe that those uniforms are available for all women serving in the Royal Navy. My hon. Friend made a good point about the fact that we must adapt to new circumstances. Obviously, there are certain tasks in which those who are not as physically strong as others will find themselves restricted, and we must continue to work on those areas. I hope that my hon. Friend does not feel that there is a general feeling of inadequacy surrounding women serving at sea. According to a recent survey, they seem to be serving extremely well, and more and more men serving at sea welcome both their presence and their ability.
Mr. Devlin : I am sorry to press the point, but it is important. We should have discrimination on grounds not of sex but of size and strength, just as there are restrictions on who can join the firefighting service in civilian life. Women who cannot lift certain loads, are not of a certain size and cannot perform certain tasks are not allowed into the civilian firefighting service, so why are they allowed to go to sea when they are patently not able to do the job ?
Mr. Hanley : Women will go to sea if they can do the job. I assure my hon. Friend that we take into careful and serious consideration the ability of people, whatever size they are, to use the equipment safely for the purpose for
Column 1090which it is intended. It would be wrong to require a person of diminutive stature to take on a task that he or she could not safely do, whether on board ship or anywhere else.
In introducing the debate I have covered a wide range of activities both at home and abroad
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside) : I was waiting until my hon. Friend's peroration to hear whether, although this is a debate about the Royal Navy, he would make even passing references to the Merchant Navy. He mentioned the worldwide role which the Royal Navy plays, and he also mentioned the Falklands. He will recall that half the fleet that went to the Falklands consisted of ships taken up from trade.
I am sure that the Ministry of Defence will have considered the size of our merchant fleet, and what would happen in any future operation similar to the Falklands campaign--there are likely to be many of them from now on, in support of the United Nations or under a NATO banner. The Ministry must consider not only whether we have enough ships to take up from trade but whether, if those ships happen to be foreign ships under charter, we have enough British crews and officers in the Merchant Navy available to man them.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I am glad that he has intervened, because it would be wrong not to mention the extremely valuable role played by the United Kingdom merchant fleet and the tasks that the courageous men and women serving in it carry out every year. I must agree with my hon. Friend that in the past decade there has been a significant decline in the British-flagged merchant fleet. The Ministry of Defence, in conjunction with the Department of Transport, keeps a close watch on the numbers of strategic ships to ensure that its plans are capable of being carried out if--God forbid--another Falklands campaign were needed.
The reasons for the decline range from the worldwide slump in the fortunes of shipping registries to changes in trading and even, in some parts of the world, changes in fiscal policy. In recent years the rate of decline has slowed, but the decline seems set to continue, albeit at a much reduced rate. However, we are confident that we can still meet the need for ships and crews should it arise.
Finally, as I have already said, I have ranged widely in geographical terms, with good reason. Had I not done so, I could not have hoped to give any real impression of what the Royal Navy is doing. This is an annual debate, and it is therefore right that it should, in effect, be a catalogue of what the Royal Navy has achieved over the past 12 months, not only in defence of this country but through its personnel in their role as diplomats extraordinary as they travel the world. It is also important that we as a Government do as much as we can to ensure that the senior service remains one of the most capable and effective navies in the world. I know that I take the whole House with me when I say how proud we are of our Royal Navy.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : On behalf of the Opposition, I am pleased fully to endorse what the Minister said about the Normandy landings and D-day, which I suppose in defence-speak today would be called a
Column 1091wonderful example of amphibiosity. That is one of the many new words that the Ministry of Defence has coined, rather like "downsizing", which reminds me of London Underground saying that fares will be "revised" when it means increased.
Clearly, Labour Members share wholly with the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House pride in our Royal Navy, admiration for the skill and expertise of the men and women in the Navy and confidence in their ability to respond to a changing world as the kaleidoscope of international events makes such changes necessary.
Although few hon. Members have direct knowledge of life in the Navy--the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) is one such example, but perhaps a bad example because his views on women may derive from an earlier age--there is considerable expertise, especially among members of the Select Committee, whose reports are always widely respected and eagerly awaited. Undoubtedly, that expertise will be displayed tonight.
The main focus of our debate will be partially overshadowed by the grave developments in Bosnia. It is appropriate to put on record our position on Bosnia, where the Royal Navy is mightily involved. First, we regret that there has been no statement today on the Government's response to the key new development--the United Nations request for more troops. Secondly, the Opposition have maintained an unwavering record of support for the deployment of British forces to assist the humanitarian effort in Bosnia.
Over the past days, thanks to the negotiating skills, determination and courage of our British United Nations general, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, and the forces under his command, a ceasefire has been in operation in Sarajevo. General Rose has called for an additional 3,000 troops to help him to enforce that ceasefire. Certainly, we believe that the United Kingdom should contribute to those forces.
The Government's response, which was announced this afternoon, is welcome so far as it goes. It amounts to the redeployment of two companies of Coldstream Guards from Vitez--although that begs the question about the consequential effect on the situation in Vitez. The response also involves the additional deployment of 60 new troops who are specialists in mortar location.
General Rose specifically asked for an additional battalion, but that United Nations request has been refused by the Government. His aim was to avoid possible military escalation, particularly a necessity for air strikes when the deadline expires on Sunday evening. His request was the result of an assessment of need. There is still time for an adequate response, and we hope that the Minister will give an assurance that we will use the time before Sunday's deadline to pressurise our allies, including the United States, for additional contributions.
Mr. Colvin : Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to correct one misunderstanding that prevails at present? Although General Rose is British, he is not the British Commander, he is a NATO-United Nations commander. Some 7,600 troops from other United Nations and NATO partners are ready to be deployed in Bosnia. It is time that other countries did more to take part in this operation, rather than leaving it to the British and French.
Mr. Anderson : Certainly, the British and French contributions are substantial. I can confirm that, although General Rose is a British national, he is acting as the United Nations commander in Bosnia. We should view his assessment of the need with great respect. History will judge us badly if, because of our over-cautious response now, there is an escalation of warfare in Bosnia and the window of opportunity afforded by the ceasefire is lost. That is as much as I wish to say about Bosnia.
To obtain a clear idea of the scale of the recent changes, which have fundamentally altered the role of our Royal Navy, I invite my parliamentary colleagues to read the three previous debates on the Royal Navy, especially the debate held four years ago this month in February 1990. That shows exactly how the world has changed over the past four years.
In February 1990, the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), the Under- Secretary at the time, opened the debate. His speech referred inter alia to President Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, the fact that HMS Achilles had visited Rostock in East Germany, the submarine capability of the Soviet Union and its ability to mount a surprise attack against the NATO countries in Europe. He said that the Soviet Union was continuing to invest heavily in modernising its armed forces. He gave as the Royal Navy's primary NATO role its anti-submarine warfare capability. He said that the primary potential threat remained that posed by the Soviet submarine fleet. Today, we are in a different world. However, there is one aspect of that speech four years ago that I invite hon. Members to hear. The Under-Secretary said :
"Our force of destroyers and frigates stands at 48 vessels, of which 44 are available for operations immediately or within a short period. We remain committed to a force of about 50 and we plan to order sufficient ships to meet that commitment."--[ Official Report , 5 February 1990 ; Vol. 166, c. 657.]
Since then, as we say in this House, an amendment has been tabled. There is a United States saying that a promise is something to run on, not to stand on.
The current figure for frigates and destroyers is about 35. We must add to that the current defence share of gross domestic product of 3.7 per cent.-- in 1984-85, it was 5.3 per cent. It has been projected by the Treasury that it will fall to 3.24 per cent. in 1995-96, and by defence experts that it will fall to 2.9 per cent. by 1999-2000. That is a sign of the financial pressures facing the forces as a whole.
Mr. Hanley : I seem to remember that, at the Labour party conference in October, some 79.9 per cent. of members voted--I believe that makes it official party policy--to reduce the defence expenditure of the United Kingdom to the European average, which is about 2.4 per cent. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is saying that, whatever the pressures on our defence budget and, indeed, whatever the reassessment caused by the changing world order and the fact that we do not have anyone threatening to attack our shores any more, the Labour party would do even more to reduce our defence expenditure and, therefore,ting that intervention. I assume that it will be followed by a question as to whether I was ever a member of the CND. Clearly, we need to look not at conference resolutions but at the Labour party's manifesto at the last election,
Column 1093which I happen to have with me. In that manifesto--I hope that the Minister will regard this with the same care as he reads conference resolutions--we said :
"We will provide whatever resources are needed for effective defence for our country, providing the necessary level of forces with the appropriate equipment and weapons."
We do not need to consider Government resolutions as we can consider their actions. Their figures are Treasury-led and not strategy-led and have fallen rapidly.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : As a keen observer of Labour party conferences, I cannot allow thehon. Gentleman to get away with his cavalier and dismissive words about conference resolutions. Will he confirm that conference resolutions that are passed by a majority of two thirds or more are binding on the Labour party ? In the example mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, the resolution to reduce our defence spending by one third--equivalent to wiping out spending on the navy--was passed by a 79 per cent. majority.
Mr. Anderson : I confirm that Labour policy is that which appears in its election manifesto. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is eagerly awaiting the manifesto that will win the Labour party the election in three years' time. Our actions in response to that manifesto will be more credible and honest than the Government's actions, as I showed when I compared the Government's promises four years ago and the actuality today.
The key complications in the Royal Navy are the long research and development times and the expected length of service of new ships. A good example of that problem is the history of the Upholder class submarine, the design contract for which was placed in May 1980. In November 1983, the build contract for the first of class was placed with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. The contracts for the remaining three boats were placed in 1986. Hon. Members will know of the history of cost overruns, but all four boats did finally, and very recently, go into service.
The "Options for Change" White Paper, which appeared in July 1990, stated that only four boats would be built in that class, yet in July last year the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" announced that the Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw Upholders from service by 1995 and were taking steps to dispose of them, after a total spend of £910 million, claiming that there would be savings in running costs of £25 million to £30 million per annum.
In a note for the Public Accounts Committee in October last year, the MOD claimed that a number of potential markets for the Upholder class boats had been identified. Last month, however, a Ministry source was quoted as saying that no country had come forward with a realistic offer and that, when taken out of the service next year, the four boats would "rust away". Will the Minister confirm
Column 1094that there is no realistic prospect of orders, that almost £1 billion has effectively been wasted and that total savings in running costs amount to £25 million to £30 million per annum?
It is clear that the financial reasons that led to the Upholder decision last year were regretted by many people in the Royal Navy. They recognised its role in the training of captains and crew who go on to larger vessels and with our special forces. They also believe that it would be more likely to be used in the future operations that we envisage.
There is clearly a close correlation between morale in the Navy and the retention of such vessels. I am reliably informed that the premature voluntary retirement rate shot up among Upholder personnel immediately after the decision was announced. The Upholder decision and other examples of cost cutting, such as the helicopter carrier, should encourage a little caution and humility among Conservative Members who demand to know how much we would spend on defence and our priorities. They expect us to produce fully worked-out operational plans three years before we take power and when we are consistently denied access to data because of the unnecessary and foolish cult of secrecy in the MOD.
Mr. Anderson : I refer the Minister to the fact the Opposition Front -Bench team has still not been provided with a copy of the semi-public speech on the RAF by Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon to an audience that included a number of Conservative Members. We have sought to obtain a copy of that speech, but without success.
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the speech was made at a private function. It is therefore not available for the Government to issue it. On openness, last year's Government White Paper set out its proposals in more detail than ever before--some people, including members of the Labour party's Front-Bench team, said that they were surprised by the openness of the document and the extra details that it contained. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman cannot say that we are not open with our information. Will he confirm that this very week he and his Front- Bench team were afforded a full briefing on the Army ? That briefing was one of a series that demonstrates the openness of which the MOD and the Government are proud.
"And e'en the ranks of Tuscany Could scarce forbear to cheer." It marked a welcome breakthrough. I repeat, however, that the air chief marshal's speech was made to a semi-public body and that when we asked for a copy of that speech, we were referred to the office of the Secretary of State for Defence. We have still not been supplied with one.
The Minister mentioned the new openness. Will he assure the House that the interim reports and the final report on the "Front Line First" study will be made available to the House ? What impact will that study have on long- term costings ?
There is a substantial contrast between the Government's rhetoric and the reality. That contrast is the reason why many people in the defence community are disillusioned with the Government and the reason for the recent MORI finding that, on defence matters, the public trust Labour more than the Conservatives. That is a matter of record.
Column 1095Clearly, the changes in the security context have led to pressures for changes in NATO and to a rethink on defence priorities in all countries, not least the United Kingdom. The "Options for Change" statement of July 1990 has been further refined, if that is the word, in the light of Treasury pressures. NATO is in a transition phase. It is instructive to read the Brussels summit communique of January this year, which placed a new emphasis on the build-up of the European pillar in defence--the European defence identity and the common foreign and security policy outlined in the Maastricht treaty.
Increasingly, the United States is reassessing its role in Europe, prompted by a number of pressures, not least financial. For example, on the 7 February of this year, President Clinton presented his 1995 budget to Congress. It amounted to a strategy of global withdrawal and a major reduction in the defence share of Government expenditure. In the United States, the share of gross domestic product that is allocated to defence will fall to 13 per cent. by 1999--a third of the share during the cold war and the lowest share since the isolationist 1930s. In the 1990s, the share amounted to as much as 40 per cent. of the federal budget. Britain and Europe must respond to changed United States policy perceptions.
Those who claim that the special relationship continues do so with much less credibility. They are not helped by the Conservative party's assistance to the Bush candidacy during the last presidential campaign, which posed major problems for our embassy in Washington because the Washington bureaucracy is so highly politicised. Despite having a remarkably expert ambassador in Sir Robin Renwick, we face a wall of problems as a result of the Conservative party's foolish partisan intervention in the campaign. I remind Government Members that the United Kingdom's concession last week to the allies over air strikes in Bosnia arose in part because of the fear that inaction would excite the pressures of isolationists within the United States.
The link between our defence policy overall and European Union developments is as yet uncertain, but the trend is likely to be an increased United States disengagement, coupled with a strengthening of European Union cohesion.
The Royal Navy is vitally affected by our perception of the changes in the nature of the threat, and our response to that threat. The old and clear role of anti-submarine warfare in the gap between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom has now gone, and a new role is being worked out with a much wider definition of security. The United States marine corps White Papers have spoken of a change
"from a focus on global threat to a focus on regional challenges". A United States naval strategist has talked of new threats from "zealots, crazies, drug runners and terrorists"
while another warns of
"the growing wealth of petro-nations--available to bullies and crazies".
It is instructive to see the Government's response in that context. The Government have argued that the "Options" statement was "strategy-led, not resource-disciplined", but virtually everyone outside the ranks of Ministers accepts that it is resource-led and strategy-disciplined. That makes it essentially a cost-cutting exercise.
Column 1096The versatility of the Navy is vital for poise over the horizon and inshore for political and military objectives. There is the flexibility of deployment without the necessity of support from the countries involved. For example, Harriers can go up in any weather, and carriers can travel 400 miles in 24 hours. There is an increasing role for the Navy in support of the civil powers, such as in disasters, drug matters and the defence of small states. That is a particular Commonwealth role, and one thinks of Grenada and the debate over the defence of micro-states within the Commonwealth. That debate began in the 1980s and, alas, has not reached a conclusion. Clearly, the Royal Navy has special advantages in the new circumstances because of its versatility. At the time of the Falklands crisis, SSN craft were the first to the area, and one SSN spent over 100 days unsupported at sea.
The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) mentioned that there is a widespread distribution of submarines nowadays. There are 376 conventional submarines in 44 countries around the world, 222 of which belong to 30 third-world countries. More than 3,000 advanced Exocets have been obtained by 29 countries.
How has the Royal Navy been able to move from the old to the new? Are the resources available? Hon. Members will know the three "defence roles" set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" and I shall not repeat them. The total force elements which were assigned to various defence roles were set out clearly, and it is accepted by the Government that there is much double counting. The total of the fleet remains at four ballistic missile nuclear submarines or SSBNs, 12 nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs, three carriers, 35 destroyers and frigates, eight amphibious ships, 25 mine counter-measures vessels, or MCMV, and 16 Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.
The Government will be aware that there are major concerns within the defence community about fitting the forces to the defence roles. Those concerns include our amphibious capability, where there is a shortfall which makes it vital to proceed with work on the two landing platform docks to replace Fearless and Intrepid. The helicopter carrier decision was much welcomed.
As far as aircraft carriers are concerned, the follow-on to the three carriers which require replacement between 2009 and 2016 must be considered. That is roughly the same time as the Sea Harrier is due to be replaced, but nothing is as yet planned.
Since there is no prospect of our ordering big carriers, we may eventually have to convert to helicopter carriers. No other aircraft will be available, unless the next generation of Sea Harriers is ready by that time. The European fighter aircraft cannot fit on to our small carriers. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are considering the next generation of Sea Harriers in their long-term costings?
I will just say in passing that France has similar problems in relation to its carrier fleet. France has two major, but aging, carriers--the Clemenceau and the Foch, which came into service in the early 1960s. There was a cry of anguish in the early February issue of Cols Bleus from Admiral Coatane, the French chief of naval staff, who regretted the many delays in the Charles de Gaulle. Admiral Coatane hoped that a second carrier would enter into service some years after. It was anticipated that the
Column 1097Charles de Gaulle nuclear carrier would be completed five years ago, but France is now saying that it will be completed--at the very earliest--in 1999.
It is sad that France has such a nationalist procurement policy. The Sea Harrier was appropriate for the French carriers, but it was not ordered. France is, of course, ordering the Rafale for the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle.
The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993" suggested that only 24 destroyers and frigates would be required for fully active service, while other ship numbers will be at a reduced level. Is it the intention of the Government to withdraw the type 22 frigates speedily? Clearly, the lower complement of the type 23--175 crew, as against 250 on the type 22--is important.
Will the new type 23 be ordered at the expense of the common new generation frigates being jointly developed by the United Kingdom, France and Italy? One assumes that such joint procurement of expensive projects will be increasingly necessary. Yarrow claims that further delays in the common new generation frigates could mean the United Kingdom losing its present frigate-designing skills. I understand that the two United Kingdom consortiums involved--Yarrow and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd.- -still have not heard which has been awarded the contract, whereas the key manufacturers in the other participating countries have been selected.
It would be helpful to know the current state of thinking of the Royal Navy on joining in the developments of the conventionally armed stand-off missile, or CASOM, which has a range of over 1,000 km. That would be a major increment in the power-projection of Royal Navy frigates.
As to nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, is there a clear commitment to begin the construction of the first batch 2T class submarines at Barrow when the Trident vessels are completed? As always in industrial matters, we need to retain our expertise. Trident has now been given a sub- strategic role, following the Secretary of State's announcement on 4 October last year during the House's debate on the defence estimates for 1993. That sub-strategic role has caused concern by doubling the number of potential nuclear warheads to 96 on each Trident submarine from 48 on each Polaris. In our judgment, warheads, not explosive power, are the key factor. That role is also a blow to those who seek to discourage nuclear proliferation. It is clearly an unfortunate signal to countries that are developing their own nuclear capacity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) will say more about mine counter-measures vessels. There is clearly an urgent need to order the next batch of Sandowns, which are very much valued in multi- national operations. I shall dwell a little on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary-- the point raised by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). It is necessary to use ships taken up from trade to supplement the existing tankers and replenishment ships to meet the total requirement under defence role 2. There is much scepticism in defence circles about the number of seamen listed in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", because the figures given were swollen by including foreign seamen in British ships and even trainees still at school.
I refer the Minister to the excellent report by the House of Commons Employment Select Committee entitled "The Future of Maritime Skills and Employment in the United
Column 1098Kingdom", which was published on 2 November last year. It shows an alarming decline in seamen and ships arising in particular from a lack of Government support for the industry. I refer the Minister to the fifth and 10th recommendations in that report, which are very pertinent to the capacity of the Navy to respond in emergencies. I remind the Minister that, during the Gulf war, the Government were required to charter ships at exorbitant rates. They chartered 127 foreign flag vessels at a cost of £180 million. The peace-time equivalent cost was estimated at £85 million. The key question is whether the Government recognise the need for a core fleet of militarily useful merchant vessels. If so, are they prepared to give fiscal and other incentives to achieve that before it is too late? The position will certainly have deteriorated even since the report of the Select Committee was published in November last year.
Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks) : I ask this question in support of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Is it not also the case that the recently retired First Sea Lord has spelt out clearly in a meeting of the parliamentary maritime group his real anxieties on the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises? I find it difficult to accept the view of Government Front-Bench Members that all is well and there is not a problem.
Mr. Anderson : Government Front-Bench Members continue to repeat that all is well as our merchant marine sinks beyond the horizon. We must treat with considerable respect the views of people with such long experience as the former First Sea Lord. I urge the Government to take the problem seriously and ask themselves whether we in Britain need a core merchant capacity and, if so, what we are prepared to do about it.
It is clear that ship ordering has vital industrial and regional consequences. I need cite only two examples. One is the success of Vickers in bidding over Swan Hunter for the construction work, valued at £211 million, for the helicopter carrier. That led to the collapse of Swan Hunter and the loss of thousands of jobs on Tyneside. The second example is the contest between the two royal dockyards, Rosyth and Devonport, which led to the £5 billion Trident refit contract being awarded to Devonport and the consequent pledge by the Secretary of State that Rosyth, by way of compensation, would be guaranteed refitting work on more than half the fleet for 12 years. The Minister will be aware that fears are now widespread that the Government could be forced to reverse that decision because the Treasury has demanded even greater cuts. The results of the defence costs study, which I understand will be completed towards the end of next month but published in April or May, are awaited with great trepidation in Rosyth, which employs 3,700 people. There is great anxiety that the pledge given only last November will not be met. It is said that the cuts envisaged in the defence costs study will go well beyond those envisaged in "Options for Change". The Treasury has given officials the target of saving £750 million in each year from 1996-97. Is it still considered feasible to maintain two yards with the reduction of the destroyer-frigate force to 35?
As for naval helicopters, the Government are presumably watching with some concern the hostile takeover bid by GKN for the Westland group, made on
Column 10998 February. It is claimed that British Aerospace, which had an interest in Westland, an independent producer, at an earlier stage, was warned off by the Ministry of Defence.
Perhaps the Minister could comment on that and on what role, if any, the Government are playing. It is certain that helicopters will play an increasing role in the regional warfare of the future, in which equipment for rapid response is needed. The highly versatile EH101 Merlin will obviously benefit the Royal Navy. That point was made earlier by the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle).
I shall conclude by discussing some of the human factors in the Royal Navy. Our capacity as a naval power clearly depends on motivating our sailors at a time of reduction and restructuring in the new strategic context. If we compare Royal Navy pay scales for 1978 with those in 1994 in real terms, we see that, although salaries for the higher ranks have risen by between 15 and 18 per cent., the salaries for the lower ranks have decreased in real terms by 13.7 per cent.
There are other key anxieties about the conditions for the men and women in our Royal Navy. One is that the conditions of overstretch lead to personnel spending increasing time at sea away from families. The possibility of spending time ashore has been made more difficult by the Government's programme of contractorisation. Men previously expected to spend some time in jobs at home. Those jobs may no longer exist as a result of contractorisation.
The shore-sea ratio is of considerable importance to morale. It has regional variations. The danger is that, in the ideological pursuit of privatisation, the Government could harm our Navy. Similarly, "Front Line First" will involve a trade-off with morale as shore time is likely to be further limited not only as a result of contractorisation but as a result of the likely conclusions of the "Front Line First" study.
As for housing, the Royal Navy clearly was not consulted about the decision to sell off the stock of housing. The ensuing housing association would be the largest in Britain, with major problems in relations with local housing authorities, tenant participation in the giant authority that will emerge and management structure. It is clear that many of those problems have not been thought through. Again, the decision was motivated by a once-for-all saving of £500 million and a desire to avoid Treasury demand for further cuts. Will the Minister ensure that the findings of the independent survey of the married quarters estate are published? What is he doing to ensure that cheap rented accommodation is available to service families who want it when they leave Ministry of Defence property? There was a helpful Rowntree report on that a year or so ago. In conclusion, in spite of the reductions and changes over a short period, our officers, men and women in the Royal Navy remain remarkably cheerful and resilient. By a neat recasting of the defence needs and juggling within the categories, the Government have given an appearance of producing a highly flexible and well -motivated force. The new military traits of mobility, flexibility and inter-operability in a highly uncertain world would make the tasks of our Royal Navy even more vital. Further cuts, which will undoubtedly be justified yet again on strategic