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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you consider discussing the progress of this Bill with Madam Speaker ? As you know only too well, last Friday the House voted unanimously, calling on the Government to provide time to get this Bill for disabled people through the House.
Today, the Government have taken part in an escapade to thwart the Bill's passage. Could you tell us, after consulting Madam Speaker, exactly what procedures will be put in place to enable the wish of the House that was expressed last Friday to be brought to fruition ? Six and a half million disabled people expect the House to observe the two unanimous votes : 235 to nil on Second Reading, and a unanimous vote again last Friday.
Column 1014It is high time this Government were brought to book. If the House is to go up on 15 July for three months holiday, will you at least ask that one or two days be found for this Bill ?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am sure that Madam Speaker is already fully aware of that request, as the hon. Gentleman put it to her earlier. [Interruption.] Order. I am quite capable of conducting the business of the Chair without help from the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell -Savours).
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) rose
Mr. Berry : No, but it is clearly related. The fact of the matter is that a clear majority of Members of this House have expressed their support, in writing, for the Bill. Last Friday, no Minister voted against the motion to allow time for the remaining stages to be completed. That being so, how can time not be provided ? Will the Minister assure disabled people that it will be ?
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that you are aware of my exchange earlier today with your predecessor in the Chair about the parliamentary replies that I am expecting and awaiting from the Lord President of the Council about whether the Government were involved in drafting the amendments in the names of private Members.
I must inform you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have still not heard from the Lord President. Your predecessor in the Chair said that he was quite certain that those on the Treasury Bench would have heard what I said--but there has been no reply.
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask you, on behalf of the House, to convey to the Leader of the House the fact that it would be extremely welcome if he came here and made a statement, before we rise this afternoon, on the Government's plans to provide further time for this legislation--in accordance with the resolution that the House passed a week ago today ?
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any Standing Order that applies to a resolution of the House such as the one passed last week ? If there is not, is it not correct to say, in the old phrase, that if the Government take no notice of such a resolution, they do so at their peril ?
Mr. Alfred Morris : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your response to my earlier point of order, but what the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said was that he personally had not been
Column 1015involved. I then asked him whether the Government had been involved in any way in drafting the so-called private Members' amendments. There was no response to that.
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Chair is responsible for how the House is seen by people outside. May I bring it to your attention, in having to implement that, that the House today, because of the behaviour of hon. Members, particularly on the Front Bench, did itself no justice at all ? There are some issues that are political between both sides of the House, and there always will be, but the issue that we were debating, for once, went beyond politics, yet politics was brought in. I think
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if the Chair was responsible for the behaviour of the House, it would behave much better than it does and would come across much better throughout the country.
Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [ 11 March ].
Debate further adjourned till Friday 24 June .
Order for Second Reading read .
Second Reading deferred till Friday 24 June .
Order for Second Reading read .
Second Reading deferred till Friday 24 June .
Order for Second Reading read .
Order for Second Reading read .
Second Reading deferred till Friday 24 June .
Order for Second Reading read .
Second Reading deferred till Friday 20 May .
Debate further adjourned till Friday 13 May .
Order for Second Reading read .
Second Reading deferred till Friday 13 May .
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Michael Brown.]
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) : I am grateful to have the opportunity today to initiate an urgently needed debate on the future of Rosyth naval base. I speak not just for myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), but for the vast majority of our constituents, a considerable number of whom are service personnel or retired service personnel. Some of them will have been disabled through active service, and they would want me to deplore the conduct of the Government in the debate that we had earlier today on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. The view of people throughout Scotland is that this debate should be totally unnecessary--indeed, it would be totally unnecessary if only we could believe the Government. Only three years ago, Rosyth naval base was threatened with closure. The strategic and economic arguments won the day. They should not need to be repeated. Of course, the Minister and other Conservative Members have said that there is no need for them to be repeated, because no decision has yet been taken on its future. Let me explain why we do not believe that ; why we believe that there is about anti-Rosyth bias in key areas of the Ministry of Defence, evident in the defence costs study ; and why we believe that the Government cannot be trusted to keep their commitments. I will then go on to argue once again the strategic case for Rosyth as the minor war vessel operating base, and hope that the Minister will listen and that the Government will keep their promises.
No one can deny that Rosyth has been singled out for discriminatory treatment : it was the only base targeted for closure in 1991 ; the dockyard, which for years had been promised submarine refitting work then had it taken away ; and the core group study of the defence costs, which deals with the rationalisation of naval bases, air stations and associated businesses, was led by Rear Admiral Dunt, who is known to be opposed to Rosyth.
I remind the Minister that in 1991 the Select Committee on Defence stated at paragraph 7.12 of its 11th report :
"Concern was voiced in the House and elsewhere about the manner in which the future of the United Kingdom's Naval Bases was being determined . . . We sought simply to establish whether the Review was conducted by the Ministry in a manner that was fair to all parties and based on sound and objective analysis of the options available." Paragraph 7.18 stated :
"In future analysis the Ministry must ensure that all options are given equal consideration. It is not clear that this was the case with the Naval Support Review."
Those criticisms of three years ago have apparently not been taken on board by the Ministry of Defence in its conduct of the defence costs study.
The duplicity that is once again involved and the failure to provide open information are disgraceful. The only way in which we have managed to get information is through the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and through the investigative journalism of a number of newspapers. I mention in particular the Daily Record , the Evening News in Edinburgh, and The Sunday Times .
The latest study of Rosyth began with a questionnaire being circulated to all service personnel asking where they
Column 1018would like to be moved if the base closed. I understand that no similar questionnaire has been sent to all personnel at other bases. That seems to be a clear example of anti-Rosyth bias.
We hear of plans to the effect that when HMS Edinburgh comes in later this year to be refitted at Rosyth dockyard, its stores and stocks, instead of being kept at Rosyth naval base, will be transported to Portsmouth, apparently in the expectation that when the refit is completed in 1995-96 Rosyth naval base will no longer be there to restock and re-store the ship.
It seems that a decision has already been made. Yesterday, I received a letter from a concerned member of the electorate. The envelope has a Plymouth postmark and the letter states that recently in Plymouth a very senior civil servant formally announced to his subordinates that the decision to close Rosyth naval base within three to five years has already been made and that an announcement to that effect will be forthcoming from the Government during the latter half of this year. I await with interest the Minister's comments on that information.
It is all depressingly familiar. In 1991, it was stated that there were no plans for the closure of Rosyth naval base. Then it was stated that all naval bases were being treated equally. The Select Committee did not believe it then and neither did we, and we do not believe it now. It seems that all the Ministers who are involved, including the Prime Minister, have denied information and have been deliberately vague about the commitments and promises that they are prepared to make.
Let me deal with the strategic advantages of Rosyth naval base and its importance in the defence of our country. The Minister will recall that in the debate on the Royal Navy on 17 February I spent some time outlining some of the strategic advantages. I shall not repeat all that I said in that debate. I am not the only one who says that there are strategic advantages : that view is shared by senior naval personnel. As the Minister is aware, a report entitled "Rosyth : an Appreciation" was leaked to us this week. That report was written by some senior naval personnel and states that Rosyth has an operational effectiveness and that the Forth is a large expanse of sheltered waters with a full range of mine-hunting conditions which are a vital ingredient in today's maritime strategy.
There are permanently established danger areas for the firing of mine- hunting charges and the laying of buoys. No other stretch of water in Scotland provides such ideal training conditions for United Kingdom and NATO units. Being geographically close to the Clyde, the locality of the Forth provides excellent facilities from which to springboard support to main operational areas. Facilities still exist for mine countermeasure vessels to be base-ported at Rosyth with a small increase in personnel support costs. The waters of the Forth and their geographical proximity to the Clyde provide an ideal springboard for effective international operations.
Rosyth's naval base has the primary waterfront engineering support organisation for the operational minor war vessel flotilla. The engineering facilities there are the Royal Navy's largest and most comprehensively equipped in support of mine countermeasures. Particular to Rosyth is the naval and dockyard expertise in fibreglass, MWV engine logic racks, minehunting navigation systems and minesweeping equipment. The close proximity of those excellent facilities to the dockyard gives Rosyth the lead as an unprecedented centre of engineering excellence. Such
Column 1019support could be provided elsewhere only after substantial capital investment. That would waste the £63 million spent in the past 20 years on establishing the site as a specialist facility for minor war vessels.
The report states that harmony rules are the cornerstone of naval personnel policy--although I must say that they are not the cornerstone of the Government's defence policy. Rosyth is a popular base. The majority of the naval personnel stationed there live in the east of Scotland. Rosyth underpins naval recruitment in Scotland and the north of England. One third of all naval recruits come from the north. There is a regular exchange of personnel between ship and shore, which sustains staff competence and provides a valuable base for minor war vessel support in future. If the base is seen to be reduced further with a view to closure, that would greatly damage morale. The people of Scotland would see such a move as a slap in the face for their years of loyalty and service to the defence not only of Scotland but of the whole United Kingdom.
To summarise Rosyth's strategic advantages, it is an ideal base with excellent facilities, a centre of engineering excellence and the only facility that can fully meet the requirements and demands of minesweeper training and operational work-up. Such a linkage is central to the values of the naval support command and establishes the partnership between the command and the fleet.
Clearly, the Government are looking for savings. I ask them to acknowledge the savings already made by Rosyth's naval base. Since it was altered to a minor war vessel operating base in 1991, it has achieved far greater savings than anticipated. The long-term costings of 1992 estimated a figure of £518 million, but that has reduced to £312 million--an overall reduction in running costs on the original naval base cost of 40 per cent. Can the Minister's own Department claim to have achieved such savings ? The total assets supported by the base are well in excess of £800 million, so it plainly offers value for money. The authors of the appreciation report believe that further savings could be made by sharing mutual services between the base and the dockyard.
A further reduction at the base will waste money, not save it. A large number of civilian and naval personnel have left the base. By next January, as part of those savings, there will have been an agreed 800 civilian job losses and 1,400 naval staff will have moved on. However, in the final report of defence costs study No.10, Rear Admiral Dunt and others want to move the supplies and transport sections of Rosyth to--surprise, surprise-- Portsmouth, leaving Rosyth providing only waterfront support and with 135 people, as compared with more than 1,000 just three years ago.
Paragraph 7.22 of the Defence Select Committee report of 1991 states :
"Cost-benefit analysis is clearly the key to deciding the most effective way of rationalising support facilities : that it was being done so late in the day is frankly extraordinary . . . MOD witnesses seemed to be suggesting to us that Ministers will be given costings only in support of the recommendations made by the Review. If that were so, it would be most unsatisfactory . . . We trust that Ministers insisted on seeing costings for all options before making their decisions. We urge the Ministry to provide the House with full costings of the proposed changes in naval support".
I urge the MOD and the Government to ensure that such information is made fully available to the House and that a full, informed and open debate is held before any recommendations, let alone decisions, are made.
Column 1020As I want to give the Minister ample time to reply, I will close by reminding him of some of the commitments that have been made to Rosyth naval base. On 16 July 1991, the then Secretary of State for Defence said :
"Following a thorough review of basing arrangements, I have decided that when the new force structure is in place ships of the Royal Navy will continue to be based at each of the naval bases at Portsmouth, Devonport, Rosyth and Faslane."--[ Official Report , 16 July 1991 ; Vol. 195, c. 149. ]
That statement was made in the full knowledge of the impact on naval commitments of the end of the cold war.
A letter from the private secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland to the leader of Fife regional council stated :
"The Secretary of State for Defence has indicated that the base will have a continuing role, retaining about two-thirds of the service personnel, and about the same proportion of the civilian workforce at the base and dockyard."
A letter to Fife regional council from the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland stated :
"The decision made sense in defence and public expenditure terms and takes careful account of all the arguments that have been advanced in Rosyth's favour."
Finally, a letter in March 1992 from the private secretary to the Prime Minister to the leader of Fife regional council stated : "Ministers have made it clear that Rosyth Naval Base will continue to have an important role to play in Britain's defence."
Rosyth has done everything that has been asked of it and more. The strategic case, objectively costed and judged against the alternatives, will establish the logic of retaining Rosyth naval base as the cost- effective option for minor war vessel support. The task should be consolidation and commitment in respect of what the base has achieved.
I am not asking for special treatment for Rosyth. I am asking for equal treatment and for recognition of the real need for an objective review of the efficiency and effectiveness of all the naval bases currently under study. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply and, I hope, to receiving some straight answers and assurances that the base's future is secure.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) oher good fortune in securing this debate. In the two years since she entered the House and since I became Minister, I have formed a healthy respect for the way in which she champions the interests of her constituents at Rosyth and elsewhere. She is, indeed, a doughty fighter for them and this debate is further evidence of her concern. The Government, of course, recognise the importance of the base to the hon. Lady's constituents, to the people of the immediate area and to Fife generally. I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to some of the recent concerns about the future of the base which have been prompted by the current study into defence support costs, known as "Front Line First". I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises and accepts that many issues in the national interest are currently under consideration in the context of the "Front Line First" study. Some of them may have a bearing on Rosyth naval base. She will understand that because the defence costs study exercise is not yet completed and because Ministers genuinely have not reached decisions on any of the studies, it is not possible for me to comment in
Column 1021too much detail while our internal deliberations are proceeding. Nevertheless, I shall do my best to be helpful to the hon. Lady.
Ms Rachel Squire : The Minister says that the defence costs study has not yet been completed. Has study group No. 10, which deals specifically with the rationalisation of the naval bases, completed its study, especially in respect of Rosyth naval base ?
Mr. Aitken : I think that the hon. Lady is getting her numbers mixed up, but let us not quibble over details about defence costs study numbers. The study is completed, but the study is simply a recommendation. That recommendation has not yet been decided on by Ministers, who, as I shall explain later, have to take into account wider considerations which the hon. Lady properly raised. There has been a great deal of rather excitable speculation about the base in recent weeks. I am glad, therefore, to address the issues that the hon. Lady has raised and to put the matter in its true perspective. I shall begin with a little background which is essential fully to appreciate the current circumstances.
In July 1991, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) announced plans to reduce Rosyth naval base to a minor war vessels operating base by 1995-96. Those plans were confirmed in early 1992 and since then work to achieve an orderly transition to minor war vessels base status has been proceeding well. The commitment and dedication of the work force, both service and civilian, towards that end has been commendable and I place on record my appreciation for it.
In recent months, the base has seen considerable activity. The move of the type 42 destroyers to Portsmouth will be completed later this year and the last type 42 operating out of Rosyth, HMS Edinburgh, will formally transfer her base port. I shall deal here with one of the hon. Lady's points which she seemed to think was proof of a sinister, anti-Rosyth conspiracy. She saw the fact that HMS Edinburgh had had her spares taken out at Portsmouth as proof of an anti-Rosyth bias. As I just said, HMS Edinburgh is one of the type 42 destroyers, all of which are moving their base port to Portsmouth later this year.
It is standard practice for vessels going into and out of refit to be de- stored and re-stored at their base port. In Edinburgh's case, that will be Portsmouth. That is what is happening and that has already been explained to the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. There is no connection between Edinburgh's refit and Rosyth's status as a naval base.
Ms Rachel Squire : I thank the Minister for that clarification. However, does he agree that it is standard practice that if a ship is being brought in to be refitted at one of the dockyards, the stores are kept nearby so that they can be put back on the ship at the earliest opportunity ? If he says that that is not the practice, will he explain why money is being spent transporting material more than 500 miles when it could be kept just 200 or 300 yd away ?
Mr. Aitken : I have just tried to explain what is standard practice. The standard practice is for a ship to be de-stored and re-stored at its base port. As was announced some time ago, HMS Edinburgh's base port will be Portsmouth. That
Column 1022is why the de-storing and re-storing takes place there. That is the simple explanation, which has nothing to do with Rosyth naval base. Time is getting on. The hon. Lady is eating into my time. I shall do my best to cover her points, although it is becoming difficult to do so in the time available. I shall perhaps skip the background, although it is important, and turn to the key matters that she raised. She seemed to be convinced that Rosyth had been singled out for special and unfair treatment by the defence costs study. She is completely wrong in this matter. All naval bases were examined and there was no discriminatory treatment for Rosyth. The study was of all naval infrastructure.
I appeal to the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends not to personalise criticisms against Admiral Dunt in the same way as, I am sorry to say, some time ago criticism was personalised against Admiral White. It is not the admirals who make decisions. It is Ministers who make decisions and they are responsible for them. All that I can say is that Admiral Dunt, with a team which is well qualified to discharge its remit, carried out the study with impartiality and integrity. Ministers will decide on their recommendations.
I agree that the turbulence to which the latest examination of Rosyth gives rise, following so closely on the 1992 decision to reduce the base to a minor war vessels level, is unfortunate in some respects. I have a genuine human sympathy for the real anxieties that the current uncertainties create among the work force and their families at Rosyth. One would have to be inhuman not to feel some sympathy. We hope to get the uncertainty over with as soon as possible and announce the results of the defence costs study in July at the latest.
It does not help matters if the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends give the uncertainties a spin of bitterness by allegations of deceit. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was unfairly accused of deceit. I repeat what he said in the House of Commons on 5 February 1991 when he was asked about the base at Prime Minister's Question Time : "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.]
That is hardly the great assurance or broken promise that the hon. Lady seemed to allege.
The hon. Lady made great play of the brochure and praised the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) for his great role as an investigative journalist from the Daily Record in uncovering great leaks. In the second world war one of the most potent pieces of military equipment was the Browning gun. What we are seeing now in Scotland is a familiar new weapon-- the Gordon Browning media gun instead of the Browning machine gun.
I have the brochure here. It could hardly be a more obvious document. It almost resembles an estate agent's brochure. There is no tremendous secret about it. It was produced last year well before the defence costs study and it was intended as an internal document and produced for local management. In no sense does it seek to establish a case for Rosyth as a centre for minor war vessels in the context of an overall review of naval infrastructure. That is what the current study is doing. It is wrong to treat it as a
Column 1023case for Rosyth's retention. However, all the points made in it were perfectly fair and have been taken into account as part of the defence costs study work.
The study into naval bases has been intensive and thorough. An enormous amount of work has gone into the examination of various aspects of the present arrangements and Rosyth's excellent record as a centre for minor war vessels is fully recognised, as indeed are those of the other naval bases. It is an objective study and all those aspects will have to be taken into account when determining the way ahead.
The 1991 study of Rosyth correctly took into account the base's capabilities and other relevant factors. Our latest deliberations will take due account of all those. Equally, we have to take note of emerging operational trends affecting the deployment patterns of minor war vessels. I assure the hon. Lady that there is no intention of discounting in any way Rosyth's claim for basing minor war vessels, but simply an intention to demonstrate that there is a range of factors that we must assess and balance against each other if we are to reach the best decision in economic, operational and value-for-money terms.
The hon. Lady mentioned the widespread reliance of the Fife economy on defence activities in the region. We accept that point and assure her that those important considerations are clearly recognised. Clearly those are matters primarily for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of