Previous Section Home Page

Column 1140

because articles 77 and 81 of the convention give rights over minerals and drilling on the continental shelf to the country that has exercised its rights under the treaty.

We must ask whether the hydrographic service is well enough equipped to perform that role. It now has only two ocean survey vessels, three coastal survey vessels, one survey motor launch and two naval parties on chartered vessels, apart, of course, from Endurance, the ice patrol ship.

Many of those vessels are relatively old. HMS Beagle, on which I sailed, was commissioned in 1968. New hulls and investment in new technologies are needed urgently, irrespective of ratification of the law of the sea conference. In his recent report, the Hydrographer of the Navy hinted at a number of worrying delays in making the necessary decisions to re-equip the service.

My contention is that the Government are right to be proud of their record on many aspects of the Royal Navy. They are right to be proud of the fact that the Royal Navy has the youngest fleet since world war one. They have two priceless assets--the Merchant Navy and the hydrographic service--to which I believe they are not paying sufficient attention.

8.42 pm

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside) : I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) has just said about the Merchant Navy. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), about the third report of the Select Committee on Employment on the future of maritime skills and employment in the United Kingdom. The Committee's recommendations--it is one on which I used to serve--are important. I am delighted that it diversified into the important matter of our maritime marine.

I cannot see--the hon. Gentleman put the question to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench--why there cannot be an exercise in the mobilisation of the merchant fleet in support of military operations. It does not have to be a full mobilisation, but I cannot believe that it would not be possible to sit down and do a desk exercise so that at least one would know what was available. One would warn the industry that it might happen at any time, somebody would blow the whistle and we could see who responded, how quickly, and what it would cost.

I am sure that exercise is possible. I believe that the only reason why the Government do not want such an exercise is that they know very well what the answer would be. Therefore, there would be pressure on the Treasury, as well as other bodies, to introduce reforms, possibly of a fiscal nature, that would improve the situation and help to restore some of the merchant fleet that we badly need.

I should like to respond, as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, to the compliments that have been showered around on the work that we have done. We are very well chaired--I am glad to see him back in the Chamber-- by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who brings, as one would expect from a direct descendant of the noble admiral, a Nelson touch to the conduct of our affairs. It is the only Committee in this place never to have had a vote. The consensus and unanimity that we find in the debate today percolates to our Committee's deliberations.

As the years go by, our defence debates take place in an atmosphere of ever -increasing uncertainty. That matter has


Column 1141

been picked up by many hon. Members today. The Government's most recent statement on our defence estimates for 1993 is entitled "Defending our Future". One must ask, against whom, what, where and when ? The certainty of the old cold war is now gone, and the uncertainty of the new world order makes planning difficult. That means that the two principles of war--flexibility and mobility--become ever more important.

Also important is the cohesion of NATO. That needs to be demonstrated in Bosnia. If, as in Bosnia, NATO is talking tough, we must also be tough and act with the full agreement of all NATO partners. The situation in Bosnia is a test of the credibility of NATO and its relationship with the United Nations. It is the first time that NATO has been into offensive action since the Korean war 40 years ago.

Accepting that NATO remains the basis of our national defence, it is the north Atlantic alliance that, in turn, is its foundation stone.

Underpinning that is the so-called special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. I know that relationship has been severely tested as of late, not least by the decision over the visa for Gerry Adams- -it was advised against by the State Department and then overturned by the White House. It is terribly important that the hot line that exists between No. 10 Downing street and the White House is regularly used. On that occasion, I believe that communication broke down. Therefore, I think that the Prime Minister's forthcoming visit to Washington is very important. I very much hope that the bridge of understanding and trust between No. 10 and the White House is rebuilt.

One way to assist that special relationship is through defence industrial co-operation. Joint projects and reciprocal sales between the United Kingdom and the United States--the so-called two-way street--are vital. It is significant that, although the political special relationship may have cooled a bit, there is no doubt that business men still recognise it.

It is a feature of our membership of the European Union that so many American businesses now invest in the United Kingdom. We attract nearly half their investment to the EC. The United States is the biggest recipient of British investment abroad. We have more investment into the United States than any other nation. That two-way street must be improved. That is why I want to say a word this evening about two defence industrial contractors : Vosper Thorneycroft and Westland. I will then say a quick word about Gibraltar.

Vosper Thorneycroft is based in the constituency of the late Stephen Milligan, who was our hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh, which borders my constituency. I always regarded Stephen Milligan as a very good friend, a trusted colleague and splendid Member of the House. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] The whole House will join me in saying how saddened we are by his tragic death. I know that if he were here today, he would be speaking up for that company and his many constituents who worked there. I am sure that he would be standing, at the Bench just behind me, speaking eloquently, as he always did, without notes, and in an articulate manner. He will be sorely missed by the House.

If he were here today, I am sure that Stephen Milligan would ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he had seen press reports about the French company CMN, which is reported to be bidding for Swan Hunter. We have heard about the problems of Tyneside, and I acknowledge their


Column 1142

existence ; but--especially in view of what the hon. Member for Newcastle on Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said about a level playing field--it is worrying that a bid is being made for a British defence company by a French company that receives substantial Government support. That will, if anything, "unlevel" the playing field, and it may also add to the excess shipbuilding capacity that already exists in the United Kingdom. Companies such as Vosper Thorneycroft could experience unfair competition.

We have heard about the shipbuilding intervention fund--the £7 million that Swan Hunter has already received. Vosper Thorneycroft does not receive any such money. What do the Government intend to do? They have already decided to exclude foreign hulls from the tendering process in relation to minehunters ; a serious French takeover bid for Swan Hunter could result in the undermining of Vosper Thorneycroft and the torpedoing, as it were, of an important industrial defence company.

We should take due note of the current situation in Gibraltar. This morning, I had a discussion with a representative of the Transport and General Workers Union about Gibraltar, and they drew my attention to the review of the Rock's economy by the Ministry of Defence. Over the past 10 years, that economy has undergone enormous structural change. It used to be 75 per cent. dependent on the MOD ; the figure is now down to 15 per cent., and falling.

Some 600 or 700 more jobs are expected to be lost in Gibraltar as a result of the review, and the cutting of further MOD work. There could be as many as 1,000 redundancies. I feel that the time has come for a round table discussion between the MOD, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office about how we can provide alternative work and training for redundant workers to overcome the difficulties. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has already been out to the Rock and has talked to people there, but I think that they would like to come here and discuss the matter to ensure that any rescue plan is properly co- ordinated.

Let me ask two questions. First, is it possible for the Rock--as a Crown colony--to be granted assisted-area status? That could well be possible. Secondly, why can it not benefit more from the EC KONVER fund, which is already available to assist in such cases? I congratulate all our Royal Navy personnel on the superb job that they are doing with UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia, and in the Adriatic. If they are called on to play a part in air strikes against Serbian or other gun or mortar positions, I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing them well, and a very safe return. 8.52 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : I endorse all that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) has said about the Royal Navy and its personnel, especially given the difficult task that it is performing in the Adriatic.

Opening this important debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to the battles of 50 years ago. I was pleased to hear him say that he recognised our responsibility to ensure that such events never occur again. He went on to say how important it was also to recognise the enduring need for sea power.


Column 1143

Inevitably, debates on the Navy tend to be dominated by considerations about its hardware. Those concerns, which have been expressed again tonight, are very real, not least in view of the lead time that is now required to provide new ships at sea. It is no longer measured in years ; it must almost be measured in decades. There are other considerations in regard to the Royal Navy, however, and tonight I wish to concentrate on the unique value of its contribution to the life of the nation.

Perhaps in slight contrast to the other two services, the Royal Navy constantly carries out useful tasks. Even in peacetime, the Navy is doing something that must be done--something that is useful and repays some of the expense that the taxpayer necessarily incurs in maintaining it.

My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned a number of the tasks for which it is responsible in peacetime, many of which are in aid of the civil powers. He mentioned the assistance given to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, fishery protection, work to control drug and arms running, work associated with accidents and emergencies and evacuation work--which could be military or civilian.

Mention has also been made of patrols in waters of high strategic importance--such as the Armilla patrol, which has operated for the past 14 years--and of the need to protect sovereignty. In that context, the Falkland Islands immediately spring to mind.

Another of the Navy's tasks is supporting the British Antarctic survey, which is particularly significant in the light of the Rio agreements. South Georgia fishing limits will have to be policed by naval forces, because there is no airfield on the island. The list goes on and on : all the Navy's peacetime tasks represent a return for the taxpayer's money. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) mentioned the hydrographic service. That aspect of the Royal Navy's work has an immediate pay-off, generating substantial income.

Traditionally, the Royal Navy has been one of the finest training schools in the world, if not the finest. It continues to train young men in increasingly high-tech skills which will be relevant to the civilian life to which they will eventually return. It also provides training in man management, the taking of responsibility and good citizenship. All that costs an enormous amount but pays handsome dividends--unlike other areas of Government expenditure, which sometimes appear to produce no return at all.

Let me place on record my regret about certain features of naval life today. We no longer have a Royal Naval Reserve Fleet. During the past 12 months, we have agreed to scrap the Royal Naval Auxiliary Reserve. The House must be aware of the decimation of the Royal Naval Reserve and the ending of a long tradition of the Royal Naval Reserve manning and operating its own sea-going tenders. It must also be aware of the closure of Royal Naval Reserve depots around our coastline.

Those facts, taken in conjunction with the reduced numbers of men employed in the fishing industry and the contraction of the merchant marine, which was mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening, and with the increasing use of foreign crews in the ships that remain under the red ensign, mean that the ships and personnel that we have now are all that we are likely to have to fight with in a future conflict.


Column 1144

Given the lead time to build new ships, and given that we have drained every reservoir and every pool of seafaring expertise, it is unlikely that we will be able to mount any additional forces in any foreseeable conflict other than the forces that we have at that time. That places an enormous responsibility on Government and especially on Defence Ministers.

I invite the House to consider the words of President Clinton in his "State of the Union" address on 25 January, three weeks ago, when he said :

"Last year, I proposed a defense plan that maintains our post-Cold War security at a lower cost. This year, many people urged me to cut our defense spending further to pay for other government programmes. I said no. The budget I send to Congress draws the line against further defense cuts. It protects the readiness and quality of our forces. Ultimately, the best strategy is to do that."

He want on to say :

"We must not cut defense further."

During the debate, understandably, Bosnia has been mentioned several times. The House is well aware of the substantial contribution that Britain is making in that region and especially, in the context of the debate, the number of naval assets deployed in the Adriatic. That is of enormous value and importance because of what those forces represent in terms of their potential for supporting, for reinforcing, for interdicting from the air if necessary and even ultimately for evacuating our forces on the ground. It is a classic example of the use of sea power. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) referred to the 500 years of tradition that we have in the use and deployment of sea power, maintaining a presence or even a threat beyond the horizon, which in its turn deters and lends enhanced credibility to the diplomacy that our country conducts.

I now turn to the words of caution that were so thoughtfully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster when he spoke about the political situation in Russia. I share his worries. As we move towards what may well become a shooting war in Bosnia, I am apprehensive at the prospect of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation being led into a three-dimensional trap. My three-dimensional trap is one of demoralisation, stemming from involvement in a war that we might not be able to win, possibly confronting the prospect of defeat, diplomatically, militarily or both, and that might- -we must all fight against this--lead ultimately to the disintegration of NATO, which would be the realisation of Moscow's long-term aim. I invite the House to consider who, even now, remain the world's best chess players.

To understand the danger to NATO and the threat to western democracy, it is necessary to analyse carefully what is happening in Russia today. That, to my mind, is best summed up in the headline that appeared in a brief from the Center for Security Policy in Washington, dated 24 January 1994 :

"Who lost Russia? The same people who are taking it back the Soviets and their friends."

9.3 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) : I am sure that all hon. Members present will join me in welcoming the opportunity to discuss the future of the Royal Navy. Since the launch of "Options for Change" in the summer of 1990 and subsequent announcements about the size of our armed forces, we have had few occasions to debate the broad strategic implications of our current maritime policy.


Column 1145

I am glad that so few Members of the Opposition have sufficient interest in the subject to be here this evening, because it has allowed me to squeeze into the debate, but I cannot avoid acknowledging the brief cameo appearance of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), the sole member of the Liberal party who has occasionally turned up--rather like a picnic boat at Henley royal regatta.

The facts and the contents of the debates, and the contributions made to them by Ministers, allied with those Ministers' firm decision in favour of a new helicopter carrier--I trust that a complementary order for new landing platform docks will soon be made as well--and the recent pronouncement, which appears to clarify the Ministry of Defence's policy on the size of the surface fleet, bode well and prove that only a Conservative Government can be entrusted with the nation's defences.

There is, nevertheless, a very real danger of a continuing mismatch between the Royal Navy's resources and its operational commitments. For that reason, it remains necessary for the Government to think clearly and carefully about our foreign policy interests and decide which are crucial and which are merely desirable if current financial pressures prevail. In short, where is the front line? Should it be redrawn to match our resources or should our resources be allowed to increase to man a longer front line fully?

At present, the Royal Navy is valiantly seeking to fulfil our commitments to NATO, in the north Atlantic, in the Mediterranean and the channel ; to continue the long-standing Armilla patrol in the Gulf ; to maintain a presence in the south Atlantic and the West Indies ; and, of late, to provide more ships for patrolling the Adriatic. The Royal Navy is also to be found in the Indian ocean and the far east.

Naval technology and doctrine have certainly changed since Alfred Mahan cautioned fiercely, "Never divide the fleet," but surely it is only common sense that our current commitments should at all times be bolstered by the funds necessary to ensure that a naval presence in a particular geographical area is of sufficient quality, in terms of capabilities and the amount of time spent on station, to achieve military and diplomatic objectives.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has tempered the Ministry's vagueness--some might say, understandable obfuscation--about the size of the surface fleet. Until several months ago, projections of a combined destroyer and frigate force of "about 35" could be interpreted-- indeed, were interpreted--as meaning 30. We are now assured that "about 35" means no fewer than 34. This trend provides some hope of a more open debate about the role of the Royal Navy, and the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on that. In future, it might even be possible to have an absolute minimum figure, but problems remain.

The projected figure includes those vessels described as being in "extended readiness", a delicate euphemism for totally unfit for combat. If all those warships that are being broken in, refitted and even awaiting sale are taken into account, it means that, for every one vessel on patrol, there are two or three in port.

The United States navy is the world leader in stealth technology but the Royal Navy may become the world leader in another sense. It will be so overstretched by a multiplicity of global commitments that it will be a


Column 1146

ghost-like, ultra-stealthy fleet. It is sobering to re-read what a Conservative defence commentator, Christopher Coker, wrote only six years ago. He reported :

"the 1987 Defence Estimates suggested that the Navy would deploy only 45 operational frigates and destroyers by the mid-1990s, a figure very close to the total of 42 planned in the 1981 Nott review".

Would that we were to have 42 or 45 operational, or even partly operational, surface ships now.

It is perhaps counter-productive to speculate on which royal naval commitments are more dispensable than others. Such an exercise would merely demoralise the dedicated seamen who serve on particular vessels. The Ministry should, however, accept that the Royal Navy is, I fear, overstretched. With that acceptance, my right hon. and learned Friend will be equipped to consider all possible options for improving the situation without compromising the national interest. It is also vital that my right hon. and learned Friend should make two cast-iron--or perhaps I should say "iron-clad"--commitments, the first being to resolve project definition by assuring the House that the two increasingly outdated amphibious assault ships, HMS Fearless and Intrepid, will be replaced. Combined land-sea amphibious operations are one of our greatest strengths and they enable us to act, independently or in concert, in out-of-area operations in what Senator Nunn of the United States so charmingly dubbed

"come-as-you-are parties".

The second commitment involves our submarine fleet. There is an unfortunate fallacy, fashionable in some quarters, that submarine warfare is somehow less important now than it was during the cold war. I suggest that people forget at their peril not only that the Russian ern SSN--the nuclear- powered submarine--is ignored. Too often it is written off as a platform whose sole rationale is as a submarine killer or as an overly aggressive weapon which does not sit well with the multilateral peacekeeping operations in which surface vessels are used to send diplomatic signals.

The fact is that SSNs are versatile boats. They can be used to launch conventional cruise missiles against land targets, to protect our sea lanes, to conduct surveillance and special operation missions and, through improvements in submarine C31--or command control communication intelligence systems--as an integrated part of a surface fleet. The Government should and, I trust, will assure the House that no more cuts in the SSN fleet will be made. They should also reconsider the decision to disband the Upholder class of conventional submarines whose qualities have been mentioned by other hon. Members this evening.

With a guarantee about the size of the surface fleet and a decision to proceed with a helicopter carrier--which will go hand in hand, I trust, with an announcement about LPDs--the Government and the Ministers on the Front Bench have shown that they hold the Royal Navy's best interests close to their hearts and at the forefront of their minds. What we must now do is build on those guarantees and ensure that the Royal Navy can meet all its commitments now and in the foreseeable future.

9.10 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : It is one of the advantages of having a name beginning with W that, from time to time, one is tail-end Charlie in a debate. When


Column 1147

you and I first came into the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our naval debates were illumined by hon. and gallant Members who had spent their formative years before the mast. I have not had that privilege, but we have all had the privilege of hearing some exceedingly fine speeches this evening, not least from hon. Members who either, as in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), are distinguished in their field or who have proved themselves distinguished in their defence of constituency interests, be they naval bases, shipyards or companies which support the Royal Navy. If one cannot spend time before the mast, one can at least try and do the next best thing. In the House, it is to get oneself on to the parliamentary armed forces scheme. I am just coming to the end of my term. I know that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, particularly, if I may say so, in politics. None the less, I pay a warm-hearted tribute both to the organisers of the scheme and to my generous hosts, the Corps of Royal Marines. I want, in the few minutes that remain, to dwell on the importance to this country of our amphibious capability and of the Royal Marines in particular. As has so often been remarked in the course of this wide-ranging debate, we are an island nation which depends on overseas trade for its livelihood and on the maintenance of that trade for its survival. We are different from our continental allies in western Europe, and our maritime heritage impels us towards a concentration, if we are wise, on the instruments of maritime power and of air power which is its concomitant.

The Royal Marines are indispensable to us because they enable us to project power ashore from the sea in an exceedingly cost-effective manner. They are only some 6,000 or so in strength and their budget is only some £200 million a year, but every man of the Royal Marines is trained to the highest standards, and there is no dilution of those standards even at this time of acute economic stringency. Then there is the versatility of the corps, which, during my attachment to it, enabled me to see at first hand something of its operations. I thought that Belize was a typical scenario, being a country that might at some time in the future require amphibious assistance for its defence. In Northern Ireland, 40. Commando is engaged in west Belfast as I speak. This is a highly dangerous environment, notwithstanding the Government's efforts to secure a political settlement which will bring peace. In addition, I saw marines train in northern Norway for arctic warfare. Without that training and without their special expertise the Royal Marines would not have been able to provide the essential ingredient which made possible the recapture of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

I did not see, but read newspaper accounts of, the Royal Marines' intervention in Operation Haven in northern Iraq. We read about the activities of the naval pilots from the commando Sea King squadrons that are providing such valiant service in Bosnia at present. Before the conflict is over, we may need yet again to be able to project military power ashore from the sea. I should be prepared to lay a bet that, if so-- whether to reinforce our presence or to execute a satisfactory withdrawal from Bosnia--the Royal Marines will be there.


Column 1148

I should like to make just two observations about the equipment of the Royal Marines. First, there is the crucial importance, for their operations as for the operations of the Army, of a sufficiency of helicopters. It is my earnest hope that in due time, when the Sea King mark IV comes to be replaced, the utility version of the Merlin will be used. It would make very good logistic sense. The commonality would make for economy in the operations of the fleet. I trust too that, if the Royal Air Force acquires some of these aircraft--I hope that it will--they will be marinised and able to inter-operate with the Sea Kings of 845 and 846 naval air squadrons for the Royal Marines.

Secondly, I gather that it is planned that the anti-armour element of 3 Commando Air Squadron--the Lynx/TOW aircraft--will not be replaced with a dedicated anti-tank helicopter flown by the Royal Marines. I am informed that the Royal Marines will have to rely on the Army Air Corps for this role. I believe this to be unwise--first, because there is a likelihood that the aircraft will not be marinised and, therefore, will be unsuitable for operation from carriers ; secondly, because it is almost certain that some general will require the Army Air Corps to be elsewhere when the Royal Marines badly need their aeroplanes.

The other equipment issue which I wish to raise concerns ships. We are delighted at the decision of Her Majesty's Government to procure HMS Ocean, the landing platform helicopter, but this vessel is to be constructed only partly to naval standards. Bearing in mind what happened to the Atlantic Conveyor and to Sir Galahad in the Falklands war, I wonder whether that is entirely right.

When I read my contract bulletin from the Ministry of Defence and see that the project definition studies for the two landing platform dock vessels are to be studies for potential construction without the full implementation of naval standards, I wonder about the wisdom of such a potentially cost-saving measure. I know that defensive aids have much improved and that there are electronic and chaff defences which are perhaps more important than ruggedness of construction. Nevertheless, I hope that we shall not spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar.

Finally, I earnestly pray that we shall be able to retain Swan Hunter shipbuilders in operation on the Tyne. To do so is crucial to a properly competitive naval shipbuilding industry. The yard is fully capable of building vessels such as the landing ship logistic which we shall want and the landing platform docks that we shall need. I hope that we shall be able to keep the yard going until it can be rescued by a French buyer, or whoever it may be. I hope that the LSL Sir Bedivere will be refitted by Swan Hunter.

I praise the Royal Marines and Her Majesty's Government for the support that they have given to the Marines, and I thank my hosts, who made my parliamentary attachment so worth while.

9.20 pm

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : Single service debates are normally characterised by a relatively small number of people who have a relatively wide range of knowledge. They are normally leaner and fitter than most of the debates and tonight has been no exception.

A large number of specific points were raised and it is almost impossible to cover them all as well as making general remarks. However, to address one comment to the hon. Member for

Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), many of us had feared the experience of interventions from


Column 1149

him in Royal Air Force debates and it now seems that he has geared up to extend his empire of knowledge. We look forward to his future comments in debates on the Royal Marines and other naval matters. The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) raised a specific point regarding Devonport, especially the need to retain a skill mix there for Trident. He was one of a number of hon. Members who raised a specific industrial issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) referred to the tragic developments at Swan Hunter. In both those cases we want to see the retention of strategic industrial capacity in the United Kingdom. Several hon. Members presented a pretty devastating critique of the present position of our merchant fleet, to which I shall return, including the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr. Luff), for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) reiterated his view that naval resources did not match naval commitments. He said that there was a mismatch and an overstretch. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), managed to combine that point in a devastating fashion along with a pledge of undying loyalty to the Tory Government and confidence that they will not do that in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) highlighted the devastating effects of random and unscheduled cuts based on budgetary rather than strategically driven decisions, outlined the effect of those cuts on the shipbuilding industry and asked some penetrating questions about the Malaysian aid deal, to which I hope the Minister will reply in his summation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) raised a range of social issues, especially the disgraceful difference since 1979, under the Government, between the real increase in wages and conditions-- particularly wages--among the higher ranks in the Navy and the real decrease of up to 14 per cent. among ordinary ratings. It seems that for the Government and the armed forces, as elsewhere, there are two standards- -one for the bosses and one for the poor bloody infantry and the poor bloody ratings. My hon. Friend also talked of the standard of education in schools attended by sons and daughters of personnel. It was interesting to see how the party of "back to basics" in education did not like the detail with which he had armed himself tonight. Hon. Members said that it was a boring subject. If the education of the sons and daughters of the military of the country is a boring subject, I ask myself why the Tories have been prattling on for the past six months about an education system which they have murdered over the past 14 years. My hon. Friend did a service to the House by raising that issue.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) looked for a balanced fleet and for "a clear strategic view". If he is looking for that, he will, in his own words, "look in vain" to the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Cann) raised some important questions, to which I shall return, about the role of aircraft carriers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) made perhaps the most impassioned and certainly the most moving appeal tonight. She argued, as she has in the past--tonight she surpassed herself--about the way in which the Government have betrayed their commitment


Column 1150

not only to our industrial base but to our strategic requirements and to the manpower and womanpower at the Rosyth base.

I repeat that the Labour party believes, and has believed, in the continued existence of two dockyards capable of refitting nuclear-powered submarines. We believe that is essential, and we stand by that tonight. It is a great tragedy that, as predicted, the so-called guarantees given by the Secretary of State for Defence some months ago turned out to be as flimsy as we thought they would be

Mr. Aitken : No.

Dr. Reid : The Minister says no, but we are all learning from experience the difference between a written guarantee and a Rifkind guarantee ; the second sort is not worth the paper it is not written on.

The hon. Member for Upminister (Sir N. Bonsor) gave his usual polished performance, bringing a great deal of experience, specifically to the criticism of the decision on the Upholder class--I shall return to that subject--and to his comments on the Select Committee's view that our naval forces are insufficient for our commitments. That was also the Committee's view on the infantry, and I suspect that it is increasingly becoming its view across the whole range. If I have missed out any hon. Members who spoke, perhaps I shall mention them during my general comments.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the events of today are moving so quickly that, even as we have been speaking, the situation in Bosnia has been changing, almost by the hour. Immediately before the debate, using a rather spurious answer rather than a full statement, the Government refused to meet a request by someone who is admittedly a United Nations and NATO general, but who also happens to be a British Army officer and a British citizen, for us to assist towards the creation of a more stable environment around Sarajevo by supplying more troops.

The Opposition regret that refusal, and feel that General Sir Michael Rose has been let down, as have the UN forces in Bosnia in general. We appreciate the danger and we take the point about balancing the risks, but apart from the consideration that the request was made by a British general, the fact that we are already one of the largest contributors to the force in Bosnia means that we should be ultra-cautious about the danger of not having sufficient troops on the ground, in the estimation of the UN commander. We are sad, and we believe that the Government have ducked their responsibilities.

Some hon. Members may be aware that since the debate started there has been a relatively surprising political initiative. The Russians have apparently spoken to the Serbs this afternoon and said that they are prepared to put in extra soldiers around Sarajevo. The Serbs appear to be suggesting that on that basis they will withdraw more completely than they had previously been prepared to. It is too early to give a reasoned judgment on that development, but let us all, on both sides of the House, hope that it has the potential to reduce even further the possibility of a terrible overspill into general war, and to de-escalate the situation around Sarajevo.

Mr. Garnier : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the development that he has just mentioned is probably the direct result of the intervention by the British Prime Minister in Moscow this week?


Column 1151

Dr. Reid : That may be the case. I am not in a position to know whether the new policy of "back to Boris" has brought some benefits. If the Prime Minister was involved in the decision in any way, hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that. Perhaps he has made no reference to it since coming back from Moscow because there were secret talks--or it may all be nothing to do with him. If he contributed towards what may turn out to be a move towards peace, of course we shall all welcome that, as we would welcome any steps that could be taken to resolve the savage and cruel war in the former Yugoslavia.

I shall briefly add my voice to the accolades that it is customary to give on such occasions to the service men and women in the Royal Navy. This year, in connection with the Navy, the phrase "service men and women" is probably more important than it was in the past. It has been mentioned that this year is the 50th anniversary of the greatest armada of ships ever assembled by this or any other nation together with its allies. Our thoughts go to those who gave their lives in the service of their country, especially the role that they played on 6 June 1944. That great armada may have diminished somewhat but, as hon. Members have said, not only in the Adriatic but elsewhere, men and women of the British Navy continue to fulfil a role that is not only productive for this country and its national interests but, one hopes, helps to create a more peaceful and stable world.

In discussing the future role of the Royal Navy, I shall start my general remarks by making the observation, which is perhaps a banal one, that the security of the United Kingdom is first and foremost a question of maritime security--that is self-evident for an island such as ours. In defensive terms, our ability to guarantee the security of Britain's sea lines of communication has always been the fundamenental prerequisite of our survival as a nation. Twice in this century alone--we have already referred to one occasion--we faced a hostile enemy determined to blockade and starve Britain into submission, and twice we have prevailed by the narrowest of margins. Defending ourselves from the emergence of a similar threat in the future remains our primary duty.

If the sea is our first line of defence, it is just as important as a means of pursuing our wider security objectives. If we are denied the use of some of the world's oceans for our purposes, we would be powerless to safeguard our interests overseas, resist acts of aggression against our friends and allies abroad and fulfil our own obligations within the NATO area. Today, as in the past, our vital interest extends far beyond Britain's shores and we must ensure that we retain the ability to contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability wherever it is threatened.

Having defined the two main tasks of the Royal Navy--the defensive task of protecting our trade routes and the offensive task of projecting power overseas--it should be clear that the transformation of the strategic environment since 1989, which has been alluded to by several hon. Members, has significant implications for the relative emphasis that each should be accorded within our overall defence strategy. The disintegration of the Warsaw pact and the break-up of the old Soviet fleet means that we need a radical reassessment of our approach to the use of sea power.

As several hon. Members have mentioned during the cold war our priorities were relatively simple to define--to maintain the transatlantic link and to deploy sufficient


Column 1152

ground forces in a forward position to act as a deterrent to any intended aggression. The situation has now changed in two fundamental respects : first, the central front no longer exists and the correlation of forces in Europe has changed out of all recognition ; secondly, there has been a dramatic decline in the potential threat to shipping in the eastern Atlantic following the rapid decrease in the size and operational readiness of the Russian navy.

I shall be careful how I couch this because caution has correctly emanated from several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Upminster, for Ludlow and for Harborough. It is essential to guard against complacency and prepare for the possibility of a revived threat. Russia continues to operate a number of modern surface warships and highly capable attack submarines, and an authoritarian regime in Moscow may at some stage in the future attempt to rebuild an ocean-going capability with the intention of posing a challenge to the security of Britain and our allies. Therefore, we are not complacent.

Continued economic stagnation is almost certain to impose resource limitations on what the Russian armed forces are capable of doing in the foreseeable future, regardless of who is in power. Furthermore, as the new military Russian doctrine underlines, the issue of the near abroad is likely to preoccupy Russian military planners for some time. Therefore, although we are not complacent, we recognise the objective economic, political and geographical conditions that constrain even a threatening and ambitious leadership in Russia. For the Royal Navy, those developments are of the utmost significance. In the absence of an immediate and tangible threat to transatlantic communications, the Royal Navy will be able to spend less time and devote fewer resources to the task of gaining control of the sea and concentrate more on using that control for the purposes of power projection.

Our naval force structure and procurement plans need to be revised in a way that explicitly recognises that change. On paper, the Government appear to agree with us on that matter. On Tuesday, for example, the Secretary of State for Defence told a meeting organised by the Centre for Defence Studies that our maritime power projection capability was a critical component of national defence strategy. He went on to define its core capacity as consisting of three distinct elements : aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and amphibious forces. It is appropriate, therefore, to consider those elements as a convenient yardstick by which to judge the effectiveness of Government policy.

The refit in 1959 of the old Ark Royal aircraft carrier was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). The relationship of existing aircraft carriers to the future capability and role of the Royal Navy was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. In view of the importance accorded to the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers by the Secretary of State, I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will be able to deny categorically a recent press report that HMS Ark Royal is to be mothballed--although the MOD, using its latest euphemism, would say that it is being placed in a state of "extended readiness". Someone in the MOD must be being paid to do nothing but think up beautiful euphemisms. As has been mentioned, we have not cuts but "downsizing".

I hope that the Minister will deny the report, because there would be a significant diminution in our maritime


Next Section

  Home Page