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Madam Speaker: It will have to be by way of a question to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): Does my right hon. Friend accept that I warmly support the suggestion by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that we should have a debate on the value of growing

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vegetables, which is beneficial to health, which is healthy exercise, which provides enjoyment and which is economical? The debate should further include reference to the fact that it is utterly ridiculous for Opposition Members to suggest that it is in any way insensitive or insulting to suggest that people who have time on their hands, whether because they are retired or because they are, unfortunately, unemployed, should devote a few hours a week to this worthwhile activity, which should have the support of the whole House.

Mr. Newton: I hope that you will agree, Madam Speaker, that my hon. Friend, with his customary ingenuity, has devised an answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) in the form of a question. The only point that I shall venture is that I know from constituency experience that nothing causes more trouble than a proposal to build houses on allotments.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): Has the Leader of the House seen reports in today's editions of The Independent and The Guardian highlighting the very close connections between ministerial political advisers and lobbying firms such as Lowe Bell and Ian Greer Associates? Will he arrange for his right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for open government, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to come to the House next week to make a statement about this important matter?

Mr. Newton: First, I have seen the reports. Secondly, as I understand it, the suggestion is that this is another matter that the Nolan committee might wish to take into account. Thirdly, the time for statements and possible debates will be when we know what the Nolan committee recommends.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I join other hon. Members in congratulating you, Madam Speaker, and the other House authorities on the preparations and plans to commemorate the victory in Europe. Will further consideration be given to the possibility of the House, on the Adjournment, going to St. Margaret's Westminster, as is traditional, to give thanks? That would be appropriate, not instead of what has been announced, but in addition to it to mark victory over Japan.

May we have an early debate on health and safety at work? There are 150,000 workplace injuries every year. It is time that the House addressed itself to this acute problem, which should exercise hon. Members on both sides.

Mr. Newton: I shall bear in mind the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question. On the first part, I am sure that you, Madam Speaker, would like to consider the specific suggestion made. I make two points on the matter, one of which, I am afraid, is a repetition. First, the hon. Gentleman described the 5 May event as celebrating the end of the war in Europe. In fact, it is to celebrate the end of world war two, embracing all the events of that war. Secondly, it is expected that the event will include a number of prayers.

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Points of Order

4.7 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Last week, I tabled a question for written answer to the Secretary of State for Transport in which I asked to be furnished with information about the amounts paid by his Department in consultancy fees to 10 named companies during the process of rail privatisation. A similar question was answered in great detail in July 1994. However, the reply that I received was that individual fees to individual companies were a matter of commercial confidentiality. I was furnished only with the information that the grand total was £17.1 million. This is the second time in as many weeks that the Department of Transport has abdicated its responsibility and accountability not only to the House, but to the British taxpayer as it is spending taxpayers' money. I would be grateful for advice on how I might proceed with this matter. Would it be possible for you, Madam Speaker, to raise the issue with the Ministers concerned?

Madam Speaker: First, I tell the hon. Lady that I have no responsibility or authority to raise the matter with the Ministers concerned. It is not my responsibility. I have no influence on the working of Government Departments; that is a matter for Secretaries of State. However, I understand hon. Members' frustration when Government Departments are inconsistent, as I know this one to be, in the method used to answer questions.

Perhaps I may give a little advice to the hon. Lady. I asked her to try to raise an earlier problem on an Adjournment debate. I know that she attempted to do that, but she did not pursue it. I leave that matter with her for the moment. The hon. Lady may also raise the matter with the Table Office staff, who can often be helpful in such matters.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In Northern Ireland Questions this afternoon, we saw another example of what we consider to be the deliberate tactic of both major parties of loading the Order Paper so that it has the effect of pushing Northern Ireland Members' questions virtually off the Order Paper. I know that that is not something with which you can directly deal, Madam Speaker, but I draw your attention to questions 5 and 6, which are virtually identical. I think that I am right in saying that, as originally tabled, there was also another pair of identical questions in the first 12 questions, although, through the withdrawal of one question, that is no longer the case.

I wonder whether it is possible for the Table Office at least to try to restrain hon. Members who ask virtually the same question, so that there would not be so many non-Northern Ireland Members tabling questions and, consequently, a better chance of Northern Ireland

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Members putting questions on the Order Paper in the same way as Scottish and Welsh Members have their questions answered.

Madam Speaker: Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no loading of the Order Paper by any party. There is a ballot for the order of questions. The hon. Gentleman can see that ballot taking place. I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustrations, too, but today, out of eight members of his party who were present, seven, including the hon. Gentleman himself, were called. That is not a bad record. I was extremely disappointed at the lack of progress that we made in Northern Ireland Questions today. It was particularly poor. We reached only question 8. I want brisker questions to Ministers in that Department and I want brisker answers, too. It is totally unfair that we cannot move faster down the Order Paper at Northern Ireland Questions.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You might not be aware of it, because of your position in the Chamber, but a habit seems to be developing at the beginning of Question Time. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) enters the Chamber, a small group of hon. Members hiss as he comes in. Although we accept that there will be some noise and to and fro in debates, that habit is not very pleasant. I hope that you will deprecate it and ask all hon. Members to desist from it.

Madam Speaker: I certainly deprecate such behaviour. I will watch particularly carefully next week. If I see or hear anything untoward happening, I will put a stop to it without delay.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In Northern Ireland Question Time, I tried to raise a point of order and ask for your guidance. It was in relation to the fact that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) referred to football hooligans starting a riot in Dublin. It would have been perfectly in order for the Prime Minister, during Prime Minister's Question Time, or for the Home Secretary to have referred to that matter, but it surely should not have been raised during Northern Ireland Questions, as no one from Northern Ireland, as far as I know, had responsibility for that riot.

Madam Speaker: There is more than a grain of truth in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. That matter certainly did not relate to Northern Ireland Questions; it was a matter for the Prime Minister or for the Home Secretary. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber a few minutes ago when I deprecated the fact that we do not move sufficiently speedily through Northern Ireland Questions, and that is because such extraneous matters are often raised at Question Time.

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Royal Navy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Willetts.]

4.13 pm

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): It is my privilege today to open our annual debate on the Royal Navy. Since I was last a Defence Minister, the cold war has ended and our armed forces- -including the Navy--have necessarily been restructured. By 1995-96, the defence budget will be some 25 per cent. smaller than it was in 1985, and that is a position broadly similar to that of other major western nations.

After the inevitable turbulence that followed "Options For Change" and "Front Line First", our armed forces can now look forward to a period of broad stability in funding. The Royal Navy will remain a formidable fighting force with global responsibilities, manned by professional and dedicated personnel to whom I am happy--I am sure the whole House is also happy--to pay tribute today.

In the uncertain and unpredictable world of today, the ultimate guarantee of our nation's security remains our strategic nuclear deterrent. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on 19 December last year that HMS Vanguard was on its first operational patrol. Vanguard's deployment marks a key point in the progressive replacement of Polaris by the Trident system, the capabilities of which will ensure that the UK's strategic deterrent will remain effective well into the next century. I note that the view of the Labour party is divided on Trident, while the view of all Government Members is entirely in one accord in support of Trident. Early-day motion 29 carries the signatures of 40 Opposition Members, of whom two are in their places this afternoon. Those 40 Members are entirely opposed to the introduction of Trident, and would cancel our nuclear submarine programme.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early, but I must make it plain that, as the Minister knows, the Labour party's policy is that we will deploy the Trident system, but we will limit the number of nuclear warheads to the same number as there are on Polaris. I hope that that is clear to everyone concerned.

Mr. Freeman: It is entirely clear that that is the policy of the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition Front Bench. I put it on record that 40 Opposition Members do not agree with that policy, and I must point out that the Labour party is entirely divided on this crucial aspect of defence policy. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) groans, but it is the truth. That is one reason why, at a general election, the electorate will not trust Labour on defence.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Surely the Minister accepts that even the Government would like to get rid of Trident, on the basis that they would like to have a world where it is not necessary, and therefore the difference is not all that great. It is not a question of whether we should get rid of it, but of how we can get

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rid of it, particularly as it will cost about £30 billion over its lifetime. Surely everyone would like to remove the need for Trident.

Mr. Freeman: The point is that 40 Opposition Members want to get rid of Trident now. It is difficult for anyone who takes this subject seriously --including those on the Opposition Front Bench--to envisage a scenario in the near future where the withdrawal of our nuclear submarine fleet would be possible. That is not a credible defence policy at present.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): Every Conservative Member voted for the statement on the defence estimates, which says that the ultimate aim of the Government is to work towards a nuclear-free world. Can we take it that every Conservative Member wants to see a nuclear-free world? Is that not exactly what Labour Members want to see?

Mr. Freeman: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not the case. The difference between the 40 Labour Members and the majority faction of the Labour party is that those hon. Members who signed the early-day motion are calling for the scrapping of Trident now. We all want to work for the reduction and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. In the mean time, we believe firmly as a Government--I speak for all my hon. Friends--that we must pursue a sensible and coherent policy to retain the Trident submarine force.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): How many fingers are there are now on nuclear triggers-- despite the non-proliferation treaty-- as opposed to during the cold war, when there were not very many?

Mr. Freeman: My hon. Friend is right. A capacity is being developed by a number of countries, of which we should be very wary. One of the main tenets of our policy is that we should retain our nuclear deterrent while any other country in a position to threaten our security possesses a nuclear weapon or the ability to construct a nuclear weapon. That is a clear policy, but there is total division of approach on the Opposition Benches.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) rose --

Mr. Freeman: I will seek to make progress.

Dr. Godman: Will the Minister give way on Trident?

Mr. Freeman: I shall return to the subject of Trident, and I shall then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The Royal Navy has adapted quickly to the post cold war environment, with its new roles and challenges. Its most visible commitment in the past 12 months has been in the Adriatic. The UK task group, led since August by HMS Invincible, the carrier, has the primary task of supporting the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's Operation Deny Flight, and its Sea Harrier jets help enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia.

HMS Campbeltown and HMS Cumberland currently contribute to United Nations embargo operations in the Adriatic on Operation Sharp Guard. Sea King helicopters from 845 Naval Air Squadron, based in Split, also continue to provide casualty evacuation and general helicopter support to Commander British Forces.

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In September 1994, the Royal Navy acted in support of UN resolutions by participating in the United States-led Operation Restore Democracy in Haiti. HMS Lancaster, and subsequently HMS Broadsword, were involved in embargo operations, while RFA Oakleaf replenished ships of the international task force. HMS Exeter is currently contributing to the US-led task group in the operation to withdraw peacekeeping forces from Somalia.

In October 1994, as Saddam Hussein's forces once again threatened peace and stability in the Gulf, HMS Cornwall, with her Lynx helicopter, was diverted from the Armilla patrol, and was quickly in position as the first visible allied presence off the Kuwaiti coast; 45 Commando Group Royal Marines also deployed to Kuwait, as the spearhead battalion, and returned home in early December, leaving behind well-prepared defensive positions for use by Kuwaiti forces and having earned universal respect.

In Northern Ireland, 42 Commando Royal Marines are currently the South Armagh roulement battalion, and they continue to demonstrate great professionalism in tackling the new and delicate challenges presented by the peace process.

Back in the Caribbean, HMS Broadsword is currently undertaking West Indies guardship duties. Part of our operational duties involve working with the United States in the fight to combat drug trafficking in the area, a dangerous trade, which increasingly involves drugs destined for the UK market.

The Royal Navy has also played a full part in the process of developing contacts with Russia and central and eastern Europe. In October, HMS Newcastle and RFA Olna took part in Exercise Co-operative Venture in the North sea and Baltic approaches. That was the first joint maritime exercise under NATO's Partnership for Peace initiative. It is a measure of the Royal Navy's global role that, last Christmas, 26 out of a total of more than 100 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships were away from their base ports. I turn now to the equipment programme, and also Trident. To meet those global defence responsibilities, we must ensure that the Royal Navy is properly equipped. We have a major procurement programme for new vessels-- one of the largest programmes for many years. We continue to plan for a broad range of capabilities, based around the three core elements of nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carrier task forces and amphibious forces. We continue to introduce modern, more capable vessels and now have the youngest fleet since the first world war.

I have already mentioned--

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) rose --

Mr. Freeman: Will my hon. Friend forgive me for a second? I want to mention Trident, and then give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) first.

I have mentioned the Trident programme. The deployment of HMS Vanguard on her first operational patrol last December met the original in-service date set more than 12 years before. The achievement of such a major and complex project on time is in no small part due

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to the skills and commitment of VSEL, the builders, and many other companies involved, and the contributions of Ministry of Defence staff at all levels.

Dr. Godman: As the Minister well knows, a goodly number of my constituents work at the Trident base on the other side of the firth of Clyde from my constituency, at Coulport and Faslane. I was pleased to receive a letter from his ministerial colleague, saying that 23 more posts were to be created there, but many people are deeply worried about what they perceive as the threat to their terms and conditions of employment in Coulport and Faslane.

Will the Minister give the House an assurance that he is completely confident of the efficacy of the ship lift on the other side of the Clyde from my constituency? Is he confident that it is able to carry out the programme of lifting those vessels out of the water with no threat of safety hazards to the people who work there?

Mr. Freeman: I am confident about that. If the hon. Gentleman has not witnessed a ship lift lifting one of the boats out of the water, I shall arrange for him to do so. One of the reasons for the increased costs of Trident's works was the extra expense of making sure that that facility was as safe as human beings can possibly make such a complicated mechanism- -strong enough to withstand a geological fault shock.

As for the contracts of employment of those who work at Coulport and Faslane, those workers have nothing to fear. I have announced that, over the next two years, we will accept the proposals from the civilian work force--to whom I pay particular tribute for what they have achieved--for improvements in efficiency at Faslane. Coulport is not affected. In due course, but not before 1997, we will introduce some market testing for some of the support functions at Faslane. There is no reason, however, for anyone there to feel either threatened or adversely done by.

Mr. Ottaway: I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about providing the nation with a modern fleet. This autumn, I had the good fortune to spend some time on board HMS Illustrious as she was embarking on sea trials before she was deployed to the Adriatic. Although it is an efficient ship, during my time on board I began to sense that probably, together with HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal, it is beginning to age.

Those ships were designed in the 1970s, and they are now about 15 years old. Is it not appropriate now to be thinking about the next generation of aircraft carriers, because the lead time for the introduction of an aircraft carrier is about 10 years, which is when the present generation of ships is likely to be becoming worn out and unserviceable?

Mr. Freeman: My hon. Friend anticipates me. We plan to retain three aircraft carriers and modernise their aircraft, including upgrading the Sea Harrier and introducing the new Merlin EH101 anti-submarine warfare helicopter. If we are to retain three aircraft carriers, we must plan for their replacement now. Planning is at an early stage, and I anticipate that we shall have another 10 to 15 years minimum service out of those aircraft carriers. One is in extended refit at the moment--

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Dr. Reid: Extended service.

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) that planning has begun at an early stage.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Freeman: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall make a little progress. I anticipate what my hon. Friend might be interested in, and I shall give way in a minute.

Development work on Merlin is now largely complete, and it remains on schedule to enter service with the Royal Navy in 1998. I understand that Mr. Alan Jones, the chief executive of Westland, is shortly to move on to BICC. May I say to those who take a close interest in Westland and the current procurement competition for support helicopters, that the move of Mr. Jones and his replacement by Mr. David Wright, for whom I have a high regard, is in no way connected with the continuing negotiations on the support helicopters. I gather that there has been some speculation that there was a connection--there is none.

Mr. Jessel: Apart from the purchase of new ships and the upholding of the best of our existing ships, will the Government give some attention to the preservation of old warships, so that, in 100 years' time, people can see what a ship from the first or second world war looked like? Will my right hon. Friend continue to encourage the work of the Warship Preservation Trust, which was founded and is chaired by our former colleague, Sir Philip Goodhart? Can my right hon. Friend say whether HMS Caroline could be made available for preservation at some suitable location?

Mr. Freeman: I am a supporter of the Warship Preservation Trust, and played some small part almost eight years ago in saving HMS Plymouth. She is now berthed at Birkenhead docks and is a credit to the Royal Navy and its long traditions. HMS Caroline, a light cruiser, is currently berthed in Belfast lough, and I shall certainly consider its future sympathetically. We must preserve and protect the resources of the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy, and, sensibly, we will do anything we can to ensure that.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am grateful to the Minister, because I hope to mention HMS Caroline later on. HMS Caroline is a wonderful time capsule, which all of us interested in naval history wish to see preserved. Belfast city council and others, including myself, believe that, after all the years it has been in Belfast lough, there it should stay, to the advantage of the people of Northern Ireland, who could benefit from it becoming a conference and tourist centre. It could be part and parcel of the new enterprises that will develop in Northern Ireland.

Certainly, as a lad from Essex, I suggest that it should not come to England, but should remain in Belfast for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind, rather than give way to some of the bids being put in by people who have no commitment to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Freeman: We continue to plan for a force level of 35 destroyers and frigates from this year, with type 23s

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having replaced older vessels such as Leanders and type 21s, which we have been able to release for sale overseas. There are currently 10 type 23s with the Royal Navy, with a further three under construction. At the end of last year, we issued an invitation to tender for a further batch of up to three frigates.

We demonstrated our commitment to maintaining a highly capable mine counter -measure flotilla for the Royal Navy last July, by placing an order for a further batch of seven Sandown class single-role minehunters.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the Minister tell the House over what time scale those minehunters will be delivered to the Royal Navy--and, more to the point, could he confirm that the last one of the seven now ordered will not actually be commissioned until well into the next century?

Mr. Freeman: The work is placed with Vosper Thorneycroft in Southampton, and occupies a good deal of its capacity. I cannot recall the exact delivery schedule, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. I am satisfied with the efficiency of the work and the rate of production, and Vosper Thorneycroft is delighted with the order.

The delivery of the last of the batch early in the next century--although I cannot give a precise date--will bring the mine counter-measure force to the 25 vessels announced in the 1993 Defence White Paper. We are also planning a programme of upgrading the 13 dual-role HUNT class minehunters/minesweepers to improve their capability to deal with future threats.

The Royal Navy now operates a 12-boat-strong attack submarine fleet, now entirely nuclear-powered, of the Swiftsure and Trafalgar classes. We issued an invitation to tender last July for the design and build of second batch of the highly successful Trafalgar class SSNs. The batch 2 submarines with which we plan to replace the Swiftsure class will be based closely on the Trafalgar class, and will incorporate the new tactical weapon system which is also being refitted to existing Swiftsure and Trafalgar class boats.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): The Minister was talking about batch 2 Trafalgar class submarine programme. He will know that order is extremely important for the future of VSEL and many thousands of my constituents' jobs. He has confirmed that invitations to tender have been sent out.

Will he also confirm that his right hon. Friend the former Minister for Defence Procurement, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, confirmed on 12 May 1992 that the orders for those submarines will be placed in January 1994, and at the earliest that order will not be until the summer of 1996? What is the reason for that

two-and-a-half-year delay in ordering the submarines, and what consequences will the delay have for my constituents?

Mr. Freeman: I am conscious of the need to ensure that, in the interests of the nation, warship building yards such as VSEL have a sensible flow of orders, whether placed by the MOD or abroad. That must make economic sense.

One of the reasons for the delay was our desire to create a competition in the design for the new Trafalgar class submarines. I am glad to say that the competition between VSEL and the consortium, including GEC, will proceed, and will be brought to a conclusion.

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A decision about how to build a nuclear- class patrol submarine is independent from where the bulk of the integration work might take place. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that VSEL has the only submarine construction facilities in Britain--and they are excellent facilities. Therefore, it would not be inconsistent to select a different method of procurement of design development and yet still build the boats at VSEL's yard at Barrow. I hope that we can bring the competition to a conclusion quickly, and get on with placing the orders.

Dr. Godman: I am grateful to the Minister for displaying his characteristic courtesy. With regard to the construction of type 23 frigates, is he in a position to give to the House the names of the yards which have expressed an interest in seeking that work?

Mr. Freeman: I see no reason why I should not do so, as it is obvious to anyone who is interested in the industry that they would include Yarrow, VSEL and Vosper Thornycroft. I have visited its yard, and I assure the House that Vosper Thornycroft has the capability of building a type 23, although it has not built a frigate or a destroyer for many years.

The capability of our SSNs will be further enhanced by the Spearfish torpedo, the most advanced anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedo in the world, whose speed and endurance enables it to outmanoeuvre the fastest and deepest diving targets. As was announced in last year's Defence White Paper, an initial batch of Spearfish torpedoes entered service with the Royal Navy in March 1994. Following improvements to the weapon's reliability, a main production order for the remainder to be supplied, and for the in-service support of that weapon system, was placed with GEC- Marconi Naval Systems in December. A large measure of the work on Spearfish will take place at the Royal Naval Armament Depot, Beith. The Spearfish torpedo will replace the Tigerfish in all Royal Navy submarines.

We plan to retain a substantial amphibious capability. The "Front Line First" announcement confirmed that we intended to replace the assault ships, HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless, and an invitation to tender for their replacement was issued last August. I expect orders to be placed around the end of this year, and I am sure that that news will be welcomed by all hon. Members on both sides of the House. Good progress continues to be made on the design and construction of the new helicopter carrier, which was ordered in 1993, and which will form the cornerstone of our future amphibious capability. We recognise the importance of specialist hydrographic vessels and personnel. We continue to plan for the upgrading of the capability of the hydrographic service by procuring four new vessels --including a new-build ocean survey vessel, an order for which was placed last month.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): My right hon. Friend knows of my interest in the hydrographic service whose offices have been located at Taunton for more than 50 years. In its bicentenary year, will he send his congratulations and best wishes to all those who work in that service on their excellent quality work, which I believe is still unparalleled throughout the world--not only in the area of military and naval surveying and

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research, but in a growing amount of civil research which will be extremely valuable to this country in the future. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that that work is continued and bettered in the future?

Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me about the bicentenary, and I send my best wishes to all of those who are involved in that vital work. I will be grateful if my hon. Friend will convey that message to his constituents, and, indeed, to all of those who work at the centre. We have decided to name the new ocean survey vessel after the great Antarctic explorer, Scott, and that vessel will do valuable work for the hydrographic service, as will the other vessels that we intend to order in due course.

We also recognise the importance of modern, capable support ships. Since last year's Royal Navy debate, two auxiliary oilers, Fort George and Fort Victoria, have entered service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. As part of the defence costs study, we announced in July last year that we are exploring the possibility of fitting our submarines with conventionally armed Tomahawk land attack missiles procured from the United States. Feasibility studies were launched in the autumn.

Mr. Mackinlay: How long was HMS Fort Victoria under construction? How much overspend was involved in that construction, and how late was the vessel delivered?

Mr. Freeman: I try to carry as much information as I can in my head, but I do not know the answers to the hon. Gentleman's questions. I will write to him, and put a copy of my reply in the Library of the House.

To enable us to maintain and enhance the fighting capabilities of the front line, we have sought major efficiency savings in the support area--not least in the recent defence costs study "Front Line First". Naval support has been largely a civilian operation since Samuel Pepys was secretary of the admiralty. "Front Line First" has successfully identified ways in which administrative and support functions could be carried out more cost- effectively, and I acknowledge the significant impact that those plans will have for a very loyal civilian work force.

A number of decisions have been taken in recent weeks that affect naval infrastructure. I announced last December our intention to redeploy minor war vessels from Rosyth. Work is proceeding to schedule and, when achieved, will represent a significant step towards eliminating excess capacity in our naval support facilities and will save some £20 million annually. The human cost of closure is, of course, a matter of regret, and I pay tribute to the work force at Rosyth for their admirable record in serving the Royal Navy for most of this century.

I am personally committed to ensuring that the future redevelopment of the parts of the base that are no longer required by the Royal Navy takes place as quickly as possible, and in a manner in which enhances the economic and particularly the employment prospects of the region. I look forward to receiving proposals next month from the Rosyth 2000 consortium for the whole Rosyth complex. We will carefully consider those and any other approaches to take over surplus facilities, so long as they assume responsibility for the whole rather than only part of the facility.

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Proposals to streamline Royal Navy armament depots have also been announced, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has also announced in recent days the Government's intention to rationalise the naval stores depots, leading to the closure by April 1997 of three main depots--at Exeter, Eaglescliffe and Wrangaton--and reductions elsewhere, particularly at Devonport. Those measures are intended to maximise the utilisation of the modern facilities we have, eliminate the overheads associated with excess capacity in the system and, most importantly, meet the operational requirements of the Royal Navy.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): Will my right hon. Friend assure me that every effort will be made to try to find alternative employment within the Ministry of Defence for the people, particularly in Plymouth, who will be made redundant by the recent announcement, and that outplacement consultants will be engaged to give them every ounce of active advice possible?

Mr. Freeman: Of course my hon. Friend is concerned about his constituency, but the point is of general interest, wherever changes are made.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I are jointly responsible for a number of decisions affecting service men, service women and civilians. First, we take very seriously the need to co-ordinate within the public sector to ensure that other Departments deploy their skills and experience in helping those people to find alternative employment; secondly--I cited Rosyth as an example--central Government have a role to ensure that we take the initiative now, before the depot or naval base closes, and without unnecessary delay to find an alternative use.

I am quite determined not to fall into the trap of piecemeal closure and piecemeal sale. The people who work at Rosyth, for example, and many other locations, deserve our help now, not simply, when the depot or garrison closes, our thanks at the end. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend is suitably impressed.

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