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unmatched setting for official entertainment, and in the vigorous support of vital British commercial interests overseas that those roles allowed.

We should not forget that the yacht's genesis was in a different world. It was a world where passenger air travel was in its earliest stages of development, in those broader and I think better days when the British empire and Commonwealth stretched across the globe. In those days, test match teams toured the world not by jumbo jet, but by a stately and majestic liner, and the pace of life was a great deal slower. In those circumstances, it was clearly the special and different requirements of royal travel which dictated a royal yacht and brought into being the magnificent and beautiful vessel we know today.

The world has, sadly, become a smaller place, under the assault of the jet aircraft. An increasingly demanding and hectic royal schedule inevitably dictates that more and more be packed into less and less time, with a consequent increase in emphasis on flying to overseas engagements.

Britannia's age has, gradually, turned her into an almost unique vessel in the Royal Navy. Following the retirement of the last Leander class frigate, HMS Andromeda, at the end of November, she is, with HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, the last of that glorious and long line of steam-turbine powered ships in the Royal Navy. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced in July of this year an invitation to tender for replacement of those latter two ships, both 10 years younger than Britannia. When they leave the service of the Crown around the turn of the century, Britannia will be truly unique.

Given her age, and the amount of inevitably outdated equipment that she contains, Britannia is an expensive ship to run, costing about £10 million a year. We believe that, merely to keep Britannia safe and seaworthy for a further five years, a refit would be required in 1997 costing about £17 million.

With the change in the pattern of royal travel, Her Majesty did not believe such expenditure could be justified. That accorded with the view reached by Her Majesty's Ministers after the most careful, thorough and detailed consideration. Consequently, albeit reluctantly, a decision was taken to decommission the yacht in 1997. By continuing to run her until 1997, we shall gain maximum value for money from the £7.1 million that was spent during the docking and repair work undertaken in 1992.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath in paying tribute to the magnificent work of the officers and men of the permanent royal yacht service. Without their dedication and pride in such an admirable centre of excellence, the yacht could never have achieved so much in more than 40 years of golden and distinguished service. Although never called upon to carry out her originally designed secondary role as a hospital ship, Britannia showed in 1986 that she could adapt readily to tasks other than her primary ones. The yacht, on her way to undertake a royal tour to New Zealand, was instructed to stand off Aden following the outbreak of fighting in South Yemen. She subsequently mounted a series of evacuations in and around Aden, taking off, as my hon. Friend for Bexleyheath rightly said, more than 1,000 people of many different nationalities.

However, Britannia will be, rightly and with great affection, best remembered for her ceremonial role--the beatings of retreat, the Commonwealth conferences, the

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state visits and, less glamorously but every bit as importantly, her splendid and unique contribution to the trade promotion of Britain's interests. Those aspects of her life are leading us to study the best way forward when finally, in 1997, she lowers the white ensign for the last time.

One of the questions that is, of course, on everybody's minds--my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath asked this himself--is, what will become of Britannia when she is decommissioned? Until 1997, the yacht will continue a programme similar to that of previous years in support of the royal family's official commitments at home and abroad and of our commercial interests overseas.

On Britannia's future, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said in his statement of 23 June that, once she has been decommissioned, we would seek to find a way to enable her to continue to serve a useful purpose, even though we would not envisage her going to sea. As I have already said, we believe that work costing about £17 million would be necessary in 1997 if she were to remain seaworthy for a further five years. Costs of that order, therefore, make a future sea-going role unlikely. We are, however, looking at a variety of proposals that we have received. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are very many such proposals.

Reaching a decision will not be a simple task. We shall need to assess the amount of work that might be necessary if she were to be preserved afloat in relation to that required if she were to be displayed in a dry dock. Any alterations that might be necessary to allow access to the public, while balancing the requirements of their comfort and safety, and, above all, the preservation of the fabric of the vessel, also need to be assessed.

These problems arise for the simplest of future uses, that of straightforward display, and before issues such as a possible location have been assessed. There have already been a number of bids in that respect, including the sensible and formidable one made by my hon. Friend for her to be moored at Erith, which we shall of course consider. Many of the arguments have been powerfully deployed and all need to be carefully assessed.

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish us to rush into a decision; nor shall we do so. The announcement of the royal yacht's paying off, three year's before it will take place, gives us time to consider our options with care and a great deal of thought. That is what we intend to do.

While this consideration is under way, it would, of course, be improper of me to speculate on its outcome or the relative merits of any of the proposals, but I can assure the House, and my hon. Friend in particular, that a statement will be made in due course, once a decision has been reached. I am afraid that I cannot tell him when that might be. Of course, as well as all the issues being considered by the Cabinet, my hon. Friend will know that we shall be seeking Her Majesty's views on what should happen to Britannia after 1997. As for a replacement for Britannia, I have made it clear that we greatly value not only her contribution over the decades, but that of her officers and men to Britain's image and commercial interests overseas in particular. I have also made clear the changed pattern of royal travel.

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However, the considerable success of Britannia, to which my hon. Friend rightly drew attention, in her trade promotion and representational roles--the latter seen to such glorious effect this year in her graceful and dignified participation in the D-day celebrations and the state visit to Russia--means that we are giving the most serious consideration to how these tasks might best be met in the future.

One option is, clearly, a replacement yacht, although we are considering alternatives. Many interesting ideas have been floated by members of the public, business organisations and, indeed, right hon. and hon. Members on possible ways to fund, run, and man a yacht and on a variety of potential secondary roles. I know that my hon. Friend has followed press speculation on the question of a replacement. All the ideas are very interesting, and before coming to a decision we shall give detailed consideration to all sensible proposals. However, to do so requires time and, contrary to press reports, I assure my hon. Friend that no decision has yet been reached.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, another important role played by the royal yacht has been to bring business to this country. That is something that we do not underestimate. Sea days involving Britannia have been a brilliant addition to our armoury for raising the profile of British industry and business abroad, and many important contracts have been signed on board. It is precisely because the Government realise the importance of trade promotion that we are considering how best to carry out that task in the future, once Britannia is no longer in service.

As well as considering the future of the yacht, I am also mindful of the need to give careful consideration to the future of the permanent royal yacht service. These men--some 111 ratings and Royal Marines who, once accepted, usually serve on board for the remainder of their careers-- provide the support that the royal yacht needs to carry out its specialised functions. We are urgently considering their future.

The rest of the yacht's complement, made up of some 112 officers and men of the Royal Navy, most of whom serve a single tour of duty, would be expected to follow their planned career pattern at the end of their current tour or certainly by the time that the yacht pays off in 1997. I can confirm that the flag officer of the royal yacht is to be replaced on his retirement by a commodore. One of the reasons for announcing, three years in advance, the decision to pay off Britannia in 1997 was specifically that it allowed us to address properly the personnel issues.

I should like to express gratitude to my hon. Friend for the opportunity provided by the debate to put on record the Government's appreciation of the work which the royal yacht and her crew have performed in the past 40 years in the service of the Crown. Work to find her a dignified and fitting role once she has left service continues, and as I have already made clear, we will consider all sensible options. It is important that that work is not rushed, nor that hasty decisions are reached. I ask the House's indulgence in allowing our important deliberations to take their course. My hon. Friend can rest assured that, once decisions have been reached, a formal statement will be made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.

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