|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 1100grounds, as the shadow of the Treasury looms over the Ministry of Defence, will risk endangering the current state of morale and readiness of our forces.
Having read the speech on defence capabilities that the Secretary of State gave to the Centre for Defence Studies on Tuesday, I cannot help wondering how much the Government are clinging to an expensively structured role of anti-submarine warfare from an earlier period when there was a very different threat. Should there be more emphasis on power projection, with the anti-submarine capability being ancillary to that?
The Government's attempts to meet so many commitments are a means of avoiding choices between a continental or maritime future and between specialisation or collaboration with our allies. We may want to stay in the business of a major warfare capacity, but is there not a danger of us ending up with units that are too small for the tasks demanded of them? The time of choice is fast approaching as the cost of systems and commitments continue to rise and budget constraints become even more onerous.
How long will current plans last after "Options for Change" and the current review? Over the next six years we shall approach the time when, it is estimated, defence expenditure will be only 2.9 per cent. of gross domestic product. The moment of choice cannot be long delayed.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : I join my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) in paying tribute to the Royal Navy, not only for what it did for us 50 years ago, but for the way in which this country's safety, independence and freedoms have been guaranteed for the past 500 years by the way in which the Navy has defended our shores and overseas interests. It would be a fundamental error for anyone to imagine that the importance of the Royal Navy is less today than it has been during the past 500 years.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the role played by the Royal Navy can be summarised in three categories. First, it represents our interests abroad, and looks after our trading interests and prestige abroad in peace time and in limited warfare. Secondly, it provides the naval contingent of any force that we give to the United Nations, the Western European Union or our allies if we are called upon to do so. Thirdly, and ultimately most importantly, it safeguards this country and its security in times of all- out war. I shall follow my hon. Friend the Minister of State in exploring the way in which the Royal Navy is able to fulfil those tasks, and its capability to do so properly.
I welcomed my hon. Friend's comments about the way in which our ships sail around the world and represent us. In Russia, South Africa, the far east and the West Indies, our ships represent us and show the white ensign in foreign ports. They enormously enhance this country's prestige and its ability to trade internationally. I was puzzled by my hon. Friend's precise comments on the current and future role of our ships on the West Indian station. He rightly paid tribute to the way in which that ship has contributed to the anti-drug smuggling exercise and the way in which it has supported our troops, who, sadly, have now withdrawn from Belize. He mentioned the invaluable task that it has carried out in representing our interests in that part of the world.
Column 1101My hon. Friend said that the ship and its posting was under review. In almost the same breath he said that he thought it was extremely important that we should continue to have a ship in that part of the world. If that is true, I very much hope that it will not be necessary to review the position for long. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies to the debate, I look forward to an assurance from him that there is no plan to withdraw the West Indies guard ship.
During the last debate on the Navy I spoke of piracy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, was less than sympathetic to the view that we should be able and prepared to play a role in defending the merchant fleet and shipping routes, particularly in the far east, against the dangers of piracy. I hope to receive a more positive response today.
There were 100 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in 1992, 80 per cent. of which were in far eastern waters and some of which involved British ships. I am sure that the House will recall the tragic and appalling murder of Captain Bashforth and his chief officer in December 1992, when their ship was boarded.
Such incidents cannot be allowed to continue, but they are growing in number and there is a substantial risk that they will spread. Indeed, such incidents are spreading--from the South China sea to the Hong Kong-Luzon- Hainan triangle. In 1993 there were several sophisticated attacks on ships in those waters when hand grenades and machine guns were used. It is a problem that Her Majesty's Government should take seriously. The Royal Navy should play a positive role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations to ensure that, in those waters, both our ships and those of other countries are safe. The merchant fleet is vital to this country. The hon. Member for Swansea, East touched on its importance and capability, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin). Our capability to carry out, if necessary, another Falklands-style campaign was also mentioned. The Government have assured the House that they are confident that we would be able to do so by hiring foreign-flag ships if necessary. I, like the Select Committee and most of those in the Royal Navy to whom I have talked, do not share that confidence. I know that Treasury Ministers have been asked by the British Chamber of Shipping--supported in high places--to undertake a specific test of our ability to run a Falklands-style campaign. They want a day to be picked at random during the coming year and an official exercise to be carried out to see whether there are ships available to enable us to carry out such an operation. I understand that request has been turned down flat by Ministers.
I can think of only two reasons for the refusal. First, we can be assured that such ships are available, so the test is unnecessary. But I am afraid that I have seen no such proof and am deeply sceptical about the availability of such ships in some circumstances. The second reason could be that Ministers are frightened that such an exercise would show that we could not carry out a Falklands-style campaign. It would therefore be necessary for the Ministry of Defence to spend more money on, and give greater support to, the merchant fll de la Billie re's book, "Storm Command" on the deployment of ships during the Gulf war. He said
Column 1102that about 146 ships were chartered to ship goods to the Gulf, of which only three flew the United Kingdom flag. That shows that 143 foreign vessels were chartered for that exercise. That shows that such ships are available.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : My hon. Friend says that the ships are available. I could enter a prolonged debate on the circumstances in which they might not be available. Foreign-flag ships would not be available in two circumstances. First, they would not be available if the country where they are flagged out did not support the United Kingdom in the exercise being undertaken and would not permit its ships to be used. I think that India withdrew and refused its ships to be used for that reason.
Secondly, ships might not be available if their crews decided that they were not prepared to serve because of the high-risk nature of the operation. Neither the Falklands exercise nor the Gulf exercise was of very high risk to our ships--although, in the former case, we were extraordinarily lucky. Neither case contained such an element of risk that foreign crews refused to serve on safety grounds, but I can easily envisage different circumstances in which they might. Therefore, although the required number of ships exist, their availability must be called into question.
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport) : Given the hon. Gentleman's experience of defence matters, he will be aware that much of the Falklands campaign was fought with a flotilla of ships, many of which were adapted at the Devonport dockyard in my constituency. Does he accept that such a campaign would no longer be possible because the rundown in the Devonport dockyard since the early 1980s means that we do not have the civilian expertise in the dockyard to carry it out?
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I accept that it would now be substantially more difficult to find the expertise in British dockyards generally than it was 12 years ago because we have fewer dockyards and fewer dockyard workers. That is another aspect of our eroding defence capability that could lead to danger.
The most obvious and topical example of the support given to the United Nations is the current role of the Royal Navy in the Adriatic. The Defence Select Committee hopes to visit our forces in the Adriatic and in Croatia in a fortnight's time. I hope that the activities of certain members of the Opposition Front Bench will not prevent us from doing so and that the usual party system will re-establish itself so that my Labour colleagues on the Defence Select Committee can travel in a way that they are currently blocked from doing.
If we manage to make that trip, there is a great deal that we shall wish to see. It is important for the House that, at such critical times, the Defence Select Committee, in particular, manages to see exactly what is happening in the areas where our troops, sailors and airmen may find themselves in danger. I should regret it were we to be balked in our attempts to do so. I hope that we shall be able to reassure ourselves on two matters : first, on the command system ; and, secondly, on the availability and suitability of the aircraft currently in that station on Ark Royal.
I welcome the Government's decision to order more FRS-2 standard Harriers, which are good all-purpose aircraft. I am not clear about how many currently on station are equipped with the Tiald equipment necessary for targeting and reconnaissance. I should welcome anything that my hon. Friend can tell me about that, and any
Column 1103reassurance that he can give me. Will the weapons on those aircraft and on Jaguar enable the Sea Harriers and Jaguars that we have available in the Gulf to play a full role in whatever may be necessary should the United Nations decide to carry out the air strikes that are currently threatened against the gun positions? The House should also take account of the fact that the operations in the Adriatic have caused much difficulty in the Royal Navy in terms of the commitment of our available ships there and elsewhere. It is remarkable that half of the 14 type 22 frigates have already served there, and that half of the 12 T-42 destroyers have served there, at least one of them twice. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary has done magnificent service in the Adriatic and the Olwen has not been relieved since the Ark Royal group sailed there over a year ago. Those details show the extent to which the Royal Navy is fully stretched, or possibly over-stretched, by our present commitments. When so many of our ships are involved in one task, it must eat into their availability to carry out the other tasks that I mentioned earlier, represent our interests across a broad front and appear round the world to show the presence of Great Britain and its interests.
Another aspect of the Adriatic operation that needs attention from the House, which the hon. Member for Swansea, East touched on, is the question of the Upholder submarine fleet. The Upholder submarine is admirably suited to operations in shallow seas. Diesel submarines are much better than nuclear submarines in shore, in operations used in covert landing, and in shadowing other submarines in shallow waters. If we need any submarines in our present operations, we need the Upholder, yet that fleet is about to be scrapped, mothballed, or sold. It is new, extremely expensive and, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East said, we have been going ahead with it at great expense, even after the "Options for Change" proposals of 1990.
Mr. Donald Anderson : May I commend to the hon. Gentleman broadsheet 92 of the Royal Navy magazine, in which Lieutenant Commander Peter Hinchliffe, commanding officer of HMS Ursula, gives a great hymn of praise to the Upholders' capabilities? That would have been published in January 1993, shortly before the decision to abolish the class altogether.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Personally, however, I doubt whether the removal of the Upholder submarine from our armoury results from a change in strategic assessment. I fear that it is led by a shortage in the funds available to my hon. Friends, who have made a difficult decision which is hard to justify in defence terms. I hope that my hon. Friends will note the value of those boats and the use to which they can be put, and review their decision to lose Upholder. Even if that means that some other part of our defence capability must, sadly, be reviewed, we need to keep those boats and should certainly not allow them to be sold to foreign flags.
Mr. Wilkinson : Will my hon. Friend comment on another aspect of that strange decision? Are not many countries enhancing their conventional submarine capability, not least the Iranians with the purchase of Soviet boats? Has not the United Kingdom traditionally been a strong exporter of submarines and submarine-related systems? Is
Column 1104it not poor economics for us to prejudice our position in that market and leave it increasingly open to our competitors, such as the Germans, French, Dutch and Swedes?
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Those are all good and valid points. Indeed, I would go further on the purchase of submarines by other nations. Even more dangerous than Iran is the situation in Korea. Hon. Members will have noticed the growing interest expressed in the British press about what is happening in Korea and the growing public awareness of the grave danger that North Korea might be about to embark on another foolish exercise, such as it did in the early 1950s, and invade South Korea. It is not a paper threat but a real possibility.
North Korea has just bought a further 24 or more SSKs from the Russians and has an enormous submarine fleet. The Korean waters are shallow and ideally suited to diesel-driven submarines. Should North Korea invade South Korea, I have no doubt whatever--I have good grounds for saying so--that our American allies would look to us for support. I am not sure what support we would give them. I do not know whether the Government have assessed what we could or should give them in the event of being called on to produce something useful for our allies.
I suggest that the Upholder submarines and our mine-clearing vessels would be two ways in which we could enhance the United States' ability to resist a Korean invasion. Both those vessels would be admirably suited to a United Kingdom contribution to the war which I fear may come within the next two years.
I welcome the addition of the landing platform helicopter. That was quite a battle. It replaces Hermes, which we lost in 1983, so I regret that we have already gone for a long time without an LPH. I also regret that its capability has been cut from 800 to 500. In a good article, Colonel Southby -Tailour, an experienced marine officer, set out in graphic detail why that cut is deeply damaging. He pointed out that, although the new vessel is designed to carry 500 people in normal circumstances, it is intrinsic to its design that it will also have a 300 overstretch capability.
That means that 300 more men will be crammed on to a ship designed for 500 men. The conditions in which they would be expected to live, tough though marines are, would put them under grave pressure. They would not be able to inhabit the LPH for long sustained periods, in the Adriatic, for example, where we might want to put troops into a vessel and hold them in readiness offshore. Although the LPH will bring unwelcome restrictions in the numbers she can carry, I welcome her addition to the fleet.
I am worried by a rumour--I know not who started it--that, because we have the LPH, we may not have the full complement of three aircraft carriers, and that the first aircraft carrier to come out of service will not be replaced. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will reassure me that there is absolutely no foundation whatsoever in that rumour and that the LPH will be in addition to and not in substitution for an aircraft carrier, which carries out an entirely different purpose. As many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, I shall summarise my remaining remarks. The ultimate role of the Royal Navy is to keep our seas open in times of war. Neither I nor the Select Committee believes that the fleet that we now operate is capable of carrying out that task or
Column 1105of playing its full role in a NATO attempt to carry out that task. I look with particular concern at the rundown in the number of SSNs and the fact that we now have only about 35 frigates, not all of which will be on station where they are needed should war break out. It would be very foolish for the Government to assume that, because Mr. Yeltsin is sympathetic to the west, Russia is now safe and that there is no potential threat from Russia or the Russian Federation and a group of her allies against Britain or NATO in the near future.
Mr. Yeltsin is not safe and events in Bosnia make his position less safe. As violence in Bosnia escalates, Mr. Yeltsin will face increasing pressure from the Duma and from his Conservative opponents for co-operating with us and not supporting Serbia wholeheartedly. If we get what the Russians laughably call a Conservative Government, by which they mean a Communist reactionary Government, or a return to a socialist Government in Russia, it would not take very long for the Russian forces, notwithstanding the recent rundown, to be re-established.
There are now moves in Russia, even under Mr. Yeltsin, to reunite with the Crimea and Byelorussia. There are strong elements in Russia that want the Ukraine back as a single unit within the Russian Federation. If they achieve that and move into the Baltic states, we will face the core of the old Soviet Union, in so far as it represented power, very little diminished in size or strength as a result of that reamalgamation.
We must look to the long-term future with the possibility that we shall still need a strong, united NATO and a British contributory force in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force capable of carrying out a role in an all- out war against us. It is the finding of the Defence Select Committee that our Navy is not strong enough properly to fulfil such a role.
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) : I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). May I take the opportunity to congratulate the Defence Select Committee on its work and on many of the good reports that it has produced?
No doubt the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be pleased to know that I shall concentrate on "Front Line First", the fancy title of the defence costs study. Once again, the Royal Navy is experiencing the impact of a Treasury-led defence policy. As the Defence Select Committee said in its report on the Royal Navy published last September, we are still awaiting the publication of the future size and shape of the Royal Navy. While we wait, we see the fleet shrinking, along with support services and the civilian and naval personnel employed.
As the Defence Select Committee said, the Government's policy seems to be leading not to extended readiness but to diminished readiness. Rosyth naval base is certainly being diminished ; it considers itself to be in the front line for the Treasury guns which are poised to blast it into complete non- existence. Hon. Members will not be surprised to know that I intend to concentrate my remarks on Rosyth naval base, although they also have a wider relevance.
I begin by emphasising why I believe Rosyth naval base is in the front line for closure ; then I shall argue why Rosyth should continue as part of Britain's front-line capability.
Column 1106The first reason why Rosyth is lined up for closure is the reduction in the surface fleet. That affects the entire Royal Navy and concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about it. There are, of course, constant promises from Ministers about the replacement of that fleet, but a fog always descends when we try to pin Ministers down about the timetable, size and detail of that replacement.
According to the 1993 defence estimates, there were 29 vessels at Rosyth. Of those 29, three were engaged in trials or training, so 26 were active or within imminent capability. Today, there are only 11 active or ready vessels at Rosyth--hardly a secure number for a naval base.
The second reason why Rosyth's future seems insecure is the continuing effect of "Options for Change" which, back in 1991, nearly led to Rosyth's closure.
Rosyth has experienced a drastic loss of jobs as well as a reduction in the surface fleet. By 1995, it will have lost 1,100 civilian jobs and 2,900 service personnel. Most recently, there have been rumours about senior officers retiring and not being replaced. Only this week I received another noticeboard letter from the Ministry of Defence. I do not know how other hon. Members feel, but when I pick up a letter from the noticeboard with the Ministry of Defence symbol on it, my heart sinks. It sank again when I opened the letter this week to find that yet another 155 staff from Rosyth naval base are to go between September 1994 and March 1995.
Of course, I am assured by the Minister that the further reduction has nothing to do with the "Front Line First" initiative. I believe that just as much as I believe that it is too early to speculate on the future of Rosyth naval base. We were given similar information back in 1990-91, when there was a clear Ministry of Defence memorandum stating the Government's intention to close down the naval base at Rosyth.
As well as the reduction in the surface fleet and the number of personnel, Rosyth has seen a reduction in its role and functions. It is now a base for minor war vessels. Much of the work carried out by those vessels now seems insecure--for example, fisheries protection. As hon. Members know, fisheries protection is provided through contract between the MOD and the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency. That contract ends next month. I have yet to hear anything about its renewal. Indeed, in a letter of November 1993, the Minister said that the current arrangements would be viewed in relation to the demands that they made on the defence budget.
I am sure that other hon. Members share my concerns about the wording. There is no guarantee that fishery protection work will continue to be carried out by the Royal Navy ; we may see an end to it, as we have seen an end to what were once the regular patrols of offshore oil and gas installations.
A fourth reason why Rosyth thinks that it is in the front line and targeted for closure is the insecurity of other facilities nearby. Rosyth dockyard may have been promised allocated surface work, but the fleet reduction hardly makes that secure. Nor does the full-scale privatisation of the dockyard, which is, I believe, the Government distancing themselves from the future of Rosyth and Devonport dockyards. Also under threat is the national rescue co-ordination centre at Pitreavie, even though the decision to make it a national centre was announced only in July 1993--it is due to become fully operational at the end of this year.
Column 1107Rosyth and the people of Fife, and indeed, Scotland, have learnt from bitter experience not to trust any promises or protestations from the Government. I have already mentioned the attempted closure of Rosyth naval base in 1991. At first, it was stated that no closure was planned. Then it was stated that all naval bases were being treated equally. Then we were told that the Scottish Office would be part of that decision-making. It was a diary of deceit and deception. We are now hearing similar statements. Is it any wonder that the people of Fife do not believe them?
Allow me to bring hon. Members up to date with the events of the past month. On 19 January, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) met the Minister for Defence Procurement to discuss Rosyth dockyard and naval base. No mention was made of the review that was announced the next day by the naval base commander. Why did the Minister say nothing to us at that time? Will he also comment on the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter), who, like his predecessor, is calling for the closure of the naval base?
The Minister is saying that all bases are being treated equally. We have evidence that is no more the case now than it was three years ago. At Rosyth, there is a failure to get information to straight questions and answers ; three studies are taking place, not just one ; and a questionnaire is being circulated at the moment asking personnel where they would like to go if the base closes. We know full well that a number of people in powerful positions, including those on the naval board, see Rosyth as expendable ; as first in the front line of fire. Let me fire back on behalf of Rosyth, and argue why it should remain part of our front-line capability.
The first reason is strategy. One of the three main objectives set out in the defence estimates 1993 is to
"Ensure the protection and security of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories, even where there is no major external threat."
Whatever else changes, Britain will remain an island nation with a coastline measuring 3,010 miles. It is argued that the loss of the only base on the north-east coast could seriously inhibit forward defence and rapid redeployment. It could go against the speed and protection of North sea interests and expose the seas around Norway. Rosyth's closure could also inhibit the protection of waters in the north Atlantic and the defence of convoys.
As hon. Members have already said, since the break-up of the Warsaw pact, arguably, we live in a more insecure and less predictable and less stable world. I listened this morning to the captain of HMS Ark Royal in the Adriatic, talking on the radio about its extended and constant readiness, waiting as the hours tick by for the news of whether it will be actively intervening in air strikes on Bosnia. There is no longer a nice neat line between us and them, between the enemies and the allies. The abandonment of Rosyth would leave the entire North sea coast, one side of the United Kingdom land triangle, exposed without a naval presence.
I shall now deal with the navy's peacetime role and mention again fishery protection, and along with it the anti-smuggling drug interdiction and environmental roles, which are played by the fleet. Rosyth provides an ideal and cost-effective training base for new commanders. It also provides invaluable assistance for an important Scottish industry--the fishing industry. I make particular mention
Column 1108of the Braer disaster off Shetland. While we all hope that will never occur again, the fast forward reaction of the crews from Rosyth undoubtedly helped to control and contain the pollution, and saved lives in the horrendous conditions of a storm force 11. That speed and skill should not be lightly cast aside.
Like many other hon. Members, I believe that fishery protection and all that is associated with it provides an irreplaceable and invaluable training ground and should be maintained as a Navy function at Rosyth and elsewhere. Rosyth is within two hours of the training area for mine- sweepers--another point in its favour. The vessels maintain a United Kingdom presence in northern waters. The closure of Rosyth would lead to the concentration of the United Kingdom's naval bases on less than 3 per cent. of the United Kingdom's total mainland coastline. There are strategic arguments against such a concentration. The closure of Rosyth would also lead to the costly loss of a centre of excellence for engineering, support and expertise, and mine-hunting navigational systems. For all those strategic reasons, Rosyth should be seen as part of our front line. Recruitment and retention is another area in Rosyth's favour. Rosyth, Fife and Scotland have provided 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom's naval personnel. Its closure would lose a good number of people. It would lead to the loss of experienced men and to significant extra costs and duplication of facilities. There have been comments about morale being good. I can say to hon. Members that morale in the Rosyth area is at the depths ; it is at rock bottom. It seems to me that no consideration is given by Ministers in the Ministry of Defence to the Navy's most precious asset--its people, who serve, who are loyal and are committed. I am thinking particularly of the people of Rosyth and the people of Scotland as a whole, who have served the defence of the realm over the centuries.
Let me quote not an admiral but a general--General Cromwell. He put it very plainly when he said :
"I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman' and is nothing else."
The men and women of Rosyth know what they fight for, and they have already made their commitment clear. Rosyth has saved the Ministry of Defence millions of pounds already ; it is the most-studied naval base in the country, and it has proved its cost-effectiveness. Savings of 40 per cent. in overall running costs have been achieved since "Options for Change". Land sale receipts are bringing in more than the original estimates, and the commitment continues to increase savings each year.
I believe that the minor war vessels base at Rosyth is cost-efficient and cost-effective. Its closure would cost the Treasury more than it would save.
I need tell no hon. Member of the vital importance of such bases to the local economy. Indeed, during the last battle over Rosyth's future, the Prime Minister acknowledged Rosyth's importance to Fife's economy. In answer to a question, the Prime Minister said : "No decision has been made to close Rosyth or any other naval base. We fully recognise the implications that closure would have for employment in the area. Those implications would be fully considered and examined before any such decision was taken."--[ Official Report, 5 February 1991 ; Vol. 185, c. 159.]
I hope that is still the case. The role of the base in providing employment is even more vital following the job
Column 1109losses that have resulted, over the past three years, from the rundown of the base and the reduction of the dockyard. As hon. Members will know, those job losses will continue.
Even with the reductions that I have mentioned, 5,000 jobs are still related to the base ; however, its closure would lead to a rise in unemployment to a rate of between 20 and 30 per cent. in an area that now has the highest unemployment level in Scotland. It would also dig a £96 million hole in the local economy. Service and civilian personnel spend a large portion of their money on local goods, services and businesses ; 250 companies in Fife would lose business if the base closed-- 82 per cent. of them small businesses. Some would collapse, leading to a loss of revenue for the Government. Skills would also be lost--skills whose availability is a major attraction for possible alternative industries. Twenty-five per cent. of the work force at the base have been there for more than 20 years ; they are not at all confident about finding new employment. The Treasury is kidding itself if it thinks that closures of this kind will save money. If Rosyth is closed, the Treasury will incur costs in the form of unemployment and other benefits, and the loss of tax and national insurance revenue. If the amount per person is £9, 000 a year, the Treasury will lose £45 million annually.
Let me ask the Minister some questions. Will the MOD release terms of reference for the studies of minor war vessel base porting that are being carried out at Rosyth, Plymouth and Portsmouth? What, to date, has been the cost to the Government of the task change at Rosyth, in terms of redundancies, associated costs for civilians and costs associated with the transfer of naval personnel? Can the MOD provide an update on the annual savings anticipated from the change in task, over five years? Will the Government confirm that the social and economic implications of changes at Rosyth will be taken fully into account now as they were in 1991? Does the Minister agree that Rosyth retains strategic importance as a minor war vessel base? At the beginning of my speech, I referred to "Front Line First". I hope that I have explained why the people of Rosyth, Fife and Scotland as a whole feel that they are in the front line--being fired on. Since 1990, we have lived with uncertainty hanging over the naval base, the dockyard and now, again, the naval base. Rosyth has been plagued by rumour, counter-rumour, reversed decisions and broken promises.
We will not stand by and watch the closure of Scotland's only surface vessel base, and Britain's only north-east coast base. The people who are based at Rosyth have served the country for nearly a century : they, and the surrounding communities, are only too well aware of the power of the sea and the price that it demands, and they know what it means to be in the front line in times of both peace and war.
Let me end by reminding the Minister of Sir Winston Churchill's words on 11 October 1940. The circumstances were very different from those that we face today, but I think that his observations are very relevant to the development of a defence policy that deals with the reality--the fact that a maritime nation must be able to be in the front line in both peace and war. Sir Winston said :
"You may look at the map and see flags stuck in at different points and consider that the results will be certain, but when you get out on the sea with its vast distances, its storms and mists, and with night coming on, and all the uncertainties which exist, you
Column 1110cannot possibly expect that the kind of conditions which would be appropriate to the movements of armies have any applications to the haphazard conditions of war at sea."
Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth) : My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who chairs the Defence Select Committee so admirably, sensibly drew our attention to the grave concern that is felt about future developments in Russia and the need to preserve our overall NATO capability. His chairmanship of the Committee has done us a great service.
The end of the cold war has made the defence equation not less difficult, but much more difficult. There are obvious pressures to reduce spending. We can take some comfort from the fact that our reductions are less, in percentage terms, than the reductions in the budgets of our NATO allies, but it is clear to me that we live in a very unstable world.
I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on his excellent speech to King's college this week, when he set out admirably the realities of an unstable world of which conflict is sadly a continuing feature, and the certainty that there will be trouble somewhere in the future--trouble that will require our involvement. He set out cogently the need for the United Kingdom to maintain strong, well-balanced forces. I assure him that he will have very strong support from Conservative Members in his battles with the Treasury.
We may wish to have a larger Navy, but what we have is, I know, a strong, capable, well-manned and well-led force, retaining an all-round capability above, below and on the surface of the sea. With the end of the cold war, the number of ships has decreased, as has the size of the navies of all our allies. The target strength of the United States navy, obviously the largest navy in the western world, was 600 ships. That navy achieved 546 ships before the end of the cold war. It is now down to 373, and will soon be down to 346. It has halved the number of submarines and it is more than halving the number of surface escorts. Those figures for the United States include the equivalent of our Royal Fleet Auxiliaries.
We maintain a Royal Navy fleet, including RFAs, of more than 100 ships. That is a commendable contribution to the world naval scene. When the trouble blew up in the Adriatic, the Navy--as always--responded instantly and effectively, in spite of having to maintain its other commitments around the world. It was interesting to see a list of places where the crews of our ships spent Christmas day a few months ago. Apart from the numerous ships in the Mediterranean, there were vessels in Brazil, in the Falkland Islands, in the Gulf and in the far east. "Join the Navy and see the World" remains true today. No praise can be too high for the men and women who serve on those ships and support them ashore, and for their leaders. They are professional, competent and loyal. Visiting one of our ships, one is immediately struck by the age of the crew--at least, someone of my age is struck by the age of the crew--which, I am told by captains, is now, on average, less than 21 : officers are included in the calculation. It is amazing that a destroyer or a frigate in harm's way in the Gulf or the Mediterranean would have a crew with an average age of less than 21.
We are going through what seems to those crews to be a period of constant change in the Navy. We understood
Column 1111the reasons, but I would say to Ministers : let us have an end to reviews with the present "Front Line First". They inevitably bring worries about the effect on careers and we need a period of stability in the years ahead. Therefore, let "Front Line First" be the end and let us finally decide where we are going as a result of that review. The Adriatic is very much in our thoughts. I was fortunate enough to go there recently and have a briefing at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters in Naples. It is a very successful operation under Admiral Mike Boorda, the American admiral commanding the southern flank of NATO. It is an exellent example of NATO and the Western European Union working together. There is joint tactical command of the ships at sea, which is working effectively. There is burden-sharing between the many nations that are supplying the ships for the blockade. About 30,000 merchant ships have been interrogated and about 500 have been directed to ports in Italy for examination. The blockade has been completely successful.
We also have in the region the carrier group led by HMS Ark Royal. Our thoughts on Tyneside are especially with Ark Royal and her sister carrier, as they were built at Swan Hunter on the Tyne. If there should be air action over Bosnia in the next few days, we know that the Fleet Air Arm from the Ark Royal will be ready to play a full and effective part.
The need for deployment in the Adriatic has again shown the value of the carrier. It is free from any problems of basing ashore. However, I must pay tribute to what I heard of the support given by the Italians to the operation in the Adriatic. They have given full support on the sea and in the air and have made available every possible facility to the United Nations forces. The carrier is nevertheless free from the problems of having to find a base--it carries its base with it in the RFAs. It makes possible a quick reaction and, interestingly, it can steam to avoid the bad weather that, at times, can close the shore bases from which the air forces operate.
I shall say a few words about the fleet train, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, of about 21 ships. Recently on one day, two were in the Falkland Islands, four were in the Adriatic--where they are playing a vital role--one was in the Gulf, one was in the West Indies and three were exercising with the Royal Marines. Without the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the warships could not operate as they do. They provide the Navy with endurance and flexibility. They are indispensible, but some are getting rather old. Indeed, some are becoming very old ladies.
There is a case for going ahead, in the near future, with some new auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels or something on those lines ; perhaps somewhat simpler than the two that were added to the Navy in recent years, and perhaps something less suited for all-out war in the Atlantic, but suited for support of task forces in areas such as the Gulf or the Adriatic.
I shall now discuss the main surface warship fleet--the destroyers and frigates. It is a commendable feature of the fleet that the average age of our destroyers and frigates is now only 10 years. There never has been, in my time, such a low age for the escorts in the Navy. Indeed, it is the
Column 1112lowest figure since the first world war. It means that, as we take new ships into service, we will be paying off old ships at the age of perhaps only 15 years.
One can argue that, with such a modern fleet, we should stop ordering new ships, but I am sure that would be a bad decision. I do not believe for a moment that it is the one that will be taken by the Government. New ships have the obvious advantage of the latest technology, but they also need smaller crews, they do, or should, need less maintenance and they should take less time to refit. As a result, they should be more available and provide better value for money for the taxpayers. There is a strong case, therefore, for continuing with a warship-building programme and I believe that is the desire of the Government, even if it means that we shall pay off some escorts at a relatively early age.
As part of the programme that has been announced by the Government, there will be new mine counter-measures vessels, new submarines, more type 23 frigates and, at last, replacements for the landing ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, which is important for the Navy, the Royal Marines and, I hope, Tyneside.
On the horizon--not so far away, I hope--is Project Horizon, the joint NATO frigate, of which we are supposed to buy 12, the French four and the Italians four. The people in British industry expect that the sharing of the work will be equated to the number of ships being ordered by each of the three countries. There is nothing, at present, to lead one to suppose that will not be the case, but it is a factor which needs to be watched.
It is essential that we maintain our shipbuilding capacity. We must bear in mind--returning again to the wise remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster--the fact that we need to maintain the capacity to regenerate if things go wrong on a massive scale. One cannot build a shipyard overnight. There is a case for maintaining a capacity for future expansion if necessary. At the same time, the more yards there are, the better will be the competition and, presumably, the value for money for the orders that are placed by the Government.
I know that the House would expect me to mention the sad case of Swan Hunter, which collapsed shortly after the previous Navy debate. The Government were justified in their decision to have the three frigates being built there completed. It was interesting that, at the time, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State assured me that they had not approached any other yard to have that work done, and they had rejected the approaches made to them by other yards keen to take over the work of completing those frigates. That decision to support Swan Hunter has been fully justified. HMS Westminster sailed on time, built to the highest possible standards, and I believe on or below the target cost. Work on the other two frigates is progressing well and the Navy remains, as always, a satisfied customer of Swan Hunter. Ministers also sent to the yard the work of completing the Fort George, after her trials. The highest tribute is due to the work force at Swan Hunter for the way in which they have continued to perform magnificently under the most distressing of circumstances, with half their colleagues losing their jobs around them. The labour force there is a great asset, and potential buyers must value it highly.
The Government fought hard and successfully--an uphill battle, as I know from my experiences of visiting the Commission in Brussels--to obtain intervention funding
Column 1113for merchant shipbuilding at Swan Hunter. The door was very nearly shut at the start of the battle. The battle raged for months and was eventually won by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry. That will enable Swan Hunter to compete in the merchant navy market, and intervention funding of up to £7 million is available for that. An interesting feature in the argument that eventually prevailed in the face of great opposition from Brussels was the fact that the Government pointed out the special facilities at Swan Hunter. If they were not to be available, they would have to be replicated elsewhere to provide the Navy with all the ships that it will need in the future. I am thinking especially of the eventual replacements for Ark Royal and her sister aircraft carriers.
There is still hope for Swan Hunter. This morning, I had discussions with a potential buyer and, in a few days' time, I shall meet another. The media are obviously extremely interested, but, as I have said to them, negotiations are best conducted in private, not in the glare of media coverage.
Significant naval orders are to be placed in the next few years, but the potential buyers recognise the facts of life. They know that to keep the yard going by relying on Royal Navy orders paid for by the taxpayer is not realistic. There must be additional work, which will have to be in the form of exports.
If the yard is to have a future, it must have a new owner. It is in the interests of the Government that the yard should have a future so that competition can be maximised in orders for the Navy. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has agreed to allow Swan's to tender for new work, subject to the backing of a new owner. Tenders are being submitted for some work which could be vital to the future of Swan's. Swan's has retained its design team. I pay tribute to Lloyd's bank, which has done all that it can to help, and to the receiver and his team who have done an excellent job in difficult circumstances. They have slimmed down the yard's overheads and made a yard that was very efficient in terms of the quality of its products much more efficient in terms of a reduction in its costs. It is now a very different Swan's from that of a year ago and it must surely be in the interests of the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the lean, efficient Swan's survives as a traditional centre of marine excellence, providing effective competition for future orders for the Royal Navy and better value for the taxpayer.
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport) : I am pleased to participate in the debate and, in particular, to be able to add my voice to those who have praised the excellent service men and women who serve in our Navy and in the armed forces and on whom the defence of our nation depends. I note, however, that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, the voices of Conservative Members are sometimes belied by their actions. This week, I received some information from the Library about the monetary rewards given to our service men and women. A service man who had been a commodore between 1978 and 1994 would have received a pay increase of 18 per cent. in real terms. An able seaman in the same period would have received a 13.7 per cent. decrease in pay in real terms. I hope that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will have something to say
Column 1114about that. I also trust that he has a sharp pencil, because I have a number of questions that I should like him to answer ; I am sure that he will.
I shall focus on some issues relating to defence and the Navy which have sometimes been neglected, not intentionally but because they have been swamped by others. Last year, I spoke a great deal about the royal naval dockyard in Plymouth and my concerns about the Trident contract and, since then, I have spoken about the surface fleet repair orders.
Tonight, I should like to focus on two different matters, one of which is the gradual withdrawal of the Navy from Plymouth and the south-west and the "downsizing", as I believe it was called earlier, of the Navy in our area and the effect on the local economy. I shall also say a few words about some important issues affecting royal naval personnel and their families.
Having examined the records of debates over the years, it is clear that such issues have not had an airing in the House, so I shall take this opportunity to correct that. Before I do so, however, I cannot avoid mentioning the royal dockyard at Devonport and I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would be surprised if I did not.
Last year, I welcomed the fact that the Trident refit contract went to Devonport. I know that it has been very difficult for my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) who last year fought extremely hard on behalf of her constituents and her dockyard and who put up an excellent fight last year. She has made an excellent case again tonight. I know how difficult it has been for her and I am aware of the many problems in her part of the country. The Minister will know, however, that things are not altogether rosy in Devonport, because since it was announced that Devonport had won the contract, we, too, have suffered substantial job losses. Most of the Trident work will not flow to Devonport until the end of the century, about 1998. Can the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient surface work to sustain the dockyard in the meantime, so that, when 1998 comes, the yard is able to carry out the work on the Trident submarines?
I deal now with the privatisation of the dockyards. People who work in the dockyard and people who live in Plymouth have a number of questions. What is the timetable for privatisation? Will the Minister say something about his inner thoughts on this important matter? I shall not rehearse all the arguments about privatisation--that can properly be done in another forum-- but a number of questions need to be answered, especially in view of the developments in the last week or so involving Rover.
Rover was privatised five years ago and taken over by British Aerospace. It has now been taken over by BMW. Is it possible that Devonport could be taken over by BMW or some other foreign company ? Could such a company have Arab involvement ? Could it contain potential enemies who happened to be large investors ? The Government had no scruples about selling arms to Iraq, which is why I am seeking reassurance about that matter.
The Devonport dockyard is of vital strategic importance to the Royal Navy and to the defence of our country. If it is privatised, will it be another vital facility about which the Government will say, "It is nothing to do with us," as they have about the Rover deal ? After privatisation, what device will the Government use to ensure that the dockyard continues in British ownership and that British interests are served ?