Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster): I welcome the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) to his new post on the Opposition Front Bench. We shall enjoy his contributions enormously over what I hope will be a prolonged period: I trust that he will stay on the Opposition Front Bench for many years to come. I thank him for his kind remarks about the Select Committee on Defence and my contribution to its work. What they did for my popularity with my colleagues I am not sure, but, none the less, it was very kind of him to draw attention to the Committee's work.
Column 1166The hon. Member for Leeds, Central quoted the Select Committee's report. I think that it was wrong to cut 25 per cent. from our defence expenditure. Since 1985, the world has become a significantly more dangerous place. I say that for two reasons, and I think that it is worth outlining them briefly.
The first is that Russia is not a lesser threat to security than the Soviet Union was. In the 50 years or so since the last world war, we have had what in retrospect we can clearly see to have been a prolonged period of peace because of the nuclear stand-off between the Soviet Union and the west. The Soviet Union was not really going to attack western Europe and we certainly were not going to attack the Soviet Union, but there is now a grey area in central Europe. However, we shall stand by it and not allow it to be taken back into a communist regime. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia can rely, and should be able to rely, on western intervention if Russia were to reinvade them. Under Mr. Yeltsin that will, one hopes, not occur, but Mr. Yeltsin's regime is not secure.
Members of the Select Committee went to Russia last year. The most depressing part of our trip was to discover that not even senior members of the current regime in Russia were prepared to tell us that they thought that they were secure. Usually when one goes to a foreign country, even if it is on the brink of revolution, the people in power will not admit to a foreigner that they are not secure. However, every Russian to whom I spoke in the current Administration said that they did not think that their positions were secure. They were extremely fearful of being overthrown by a Zhirinovsky-type regime, not necessarily by Mr. Zhirinovsky himself but by someone who shares his ideals--perhaps "ideals" is not the right word to describe his wish to recreate a Russian empire and reoccupy the areas which Russia once ruled.
I do not think that we can safely allow our defences to stay at a level that might not allow us to face the possibility--I hope to God that is only a faint possibility--that the west and Russia will confront one another in the foreseeable future over democratic government in the central European countries that have now turned their faces to the west. We cannot safely ignore that danger. Nor can we safely ignore the possibility of something happening in the middle east, where fundamentalist Islamic regimes are expanding their power base and moving into Egypt and Algeria and along the north African coast in what looks like an inexorable advance of that philosophy.
That philosophy is hostile to the west and must pose the danger of a major war or a possible one-off attack by a lunatic such as, for example, Colonel Gaddafi unleashing a missile or two on Europe. They are the two main dangers facing our country and our allies in the next 10 years or so, and our defences must be sufficient to deal with them. I regret the cuts introduced under "Options for Change" but I shall not dwell on that because the case has already been well made. We must and will now begin to re- establish the strength of our military forces.
I deal now with specific matters in which the Select Committee has been interested and on which it reported to the House. We raised several issues arising from the report in a debate on the defence estimates last October. I am delighted that in many instances the Government
Column 1167responded to our anxieties and dealt with the shortcomings that we outlined. For example, I am very pleased with the order for the Sandown class mine counter measure vessels. We have 18; the Ministry has identified a minimum of 25 as necessary and we are now tackling the shortfall. I am a little disappointed about the time scale but hope that Ministers will be able to speed up progress and ensure that we reach the required number earlier rather than later in the first decade of the next century.
I welcome the fact that the Trafalgar class will get Spearfish torpedoes and welcome the continuing programme for building and equipping our submarine fleet. Last year, the Russians built and commissioned as many submarines as we have in our entire fleet. They also commissioned the most powerful cruiser in the world, so we must not take our eyes off the potential threat with which the Royal Navy might have to deal.
We welcomed the amphibious replacement programme, especially the HMS Ocean helicopter landing platform. We also welcome what my right hon. Friend the Minister said today about the two assault ships. I am pleased that we now have a firm programme for the replacement of HMS Fearless and Intrepid. I am a little concerned about the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I know that the "O" class tankers are to be replaced but I am not absolutely clear about when. They are old, and I hope that we can formulate a programme quickly.
We have three Rovers and three Leaf class support ships, which are also getting old. As far as I know, there are no plans to replace them, but I hope that they can be added to the programme of new shipping.
The Merchant Navy is, of course, a vital part of our defence strategy. It is extremely important that it is always able to carry our troops wherever they are needed and that it could, if necessary, once again launch a Falkland-type operation. The Select Committee took evidence on the Merchant Navy yesterday and was assured that the Ministry of Defence is confident that it could do so. We examined in detail the facts put to us and will report fully to the House in due course.
At this stage, I am still concerned about the number of people in the Merchant Navy reserve and the number of ships available. A paper exercise is being carried out in the next week or two to ascertain whether we could launch a Falkland-type operation. The Chamber of Shipping has been asking for such an exercise for a long time, and I welcome the fact that it is at last being undertaken.
Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman refers to the fact that we now have insufficient merchant ships to launch a Falklands-type campaign. Does he agree that we now have insufficient dockyard capacity to launch a Falklands -type campaign?
Sir Nicholas Bonsor: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is no, I would not accept that. We probably could launch such a campaign. Our dockyard capacity certainly has shrunk, but it has not been suggested to me that we could not launch a Falklands-type campaign for that reason. I shall ensure that we address the hon. Gentleman's point, but at the moment I do not think that his fears are justified.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central said that the Select Committee has been highly critical--as, indeed, it has--about the way in which the decision to close Eaglescliff
Column 1168and the other naval stores and to centralise them in Portsmouth was undertaken. Committee members were not, however, critical about the conclusion. We were critical about the way in which it was undertaken, and justifiably so. The Ministry has accepted most of our criticisms and in its reply to us, which is in the Library, it has accepted that the way in which that decision was taken was flawed. I hope that it will not happen again.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): The Select Committee made some important criticisms and, as my hon. Friend said, we took them on board. I should like my hon. Friend to know that we remain determined to handle such matters better in future and I like to think that, as a result of that report and the actions that we have taken, we shall do so.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I welcome his statement and I am sure that what happened will not be repeated. To be fair to him, most of the front-line study reports submitted to the Defence Select Committee were very full and had clearly been very well thought through. Naval stores were the exception not the rule. [Laughter.] The way in which that particular decision on naval stores was taken was the exception not the rule. Most of the reports are extremely full and I do not think that the Ministry should be criticised on the generality. As my hon. Friend said, there certainly was a flaw in the way in which the Ministry went about the decision on naval stores.
I very much welcome the fact that training will become the responsibility of a defence agency. I hope that there will be a vigorous programme of market testing, as the Ministry has promised, that it will begin soon and that we shall be able to see its results.
The Committee regretted the closure of Manadon. I understand the reasons for it and that it was--possibly--inevitable. None the less, it is a great loss to the Royal Navy and the way in which we train our engineering officers. It is a great pity that the opportunity was missed to join with Shrivenham and put the engineering forces into that university. The Select Committee visited Shrivenham last year and saw that there was no doubt that it had the capacity to undertake such an additional course. It would have enhanced Shrivenham and would have fitted very much better into royal naval training than sending the potential royal engineer officers to Southampton, which is what will happen.
We hope that the Southampton university course will be a success and will turn out engineering officers who will stay in the Royal Navy. The Committee will watch closely how that situation develops, but I would be less than honest with my hon. Friend and the House if I did not express fears that it is not an adequate or satisfactory long-term solution to the way in which we train our engineering officers.
The Committee was concerned that, despite the assurances that we were given, there were excessive funding constraints on ships' exercises. We concluded that the failure to give adequate exercise to our royal naval vessels could lead, in time, to measurable deterioration in our operational standards. The Ministry's reply to the Committee observes that exercise cancellations are often the results of programming pressures and changing priorities in operational commitments. I accept that. In fact, it is another way of saying precisely what we are saying--that there are not enough ships and that they have
Column 1169too much to do. At the moment, we cannot put our Royal Navy ships into the areas where they are needed and give them adequate exercise time in major warfare preparation, and that should be addressed. I am very sad that we do not have a type 23 combined tactical trainer stage five simulator at HMS Dryad, or, indeed, anywhere else. That means that people who are training either for the new type 23 ships, or for the upgraded older ships that have been fitted with the same equipment, undergo training at sea during live operations, which is a great pity. It is a waste of resources and it must be very difficult for those conducting the training. Indeed, to have to run as a training base as well must be very difficult for ships' ordinary operations. It is unsatisfactory and I very much hope that my hon. Friend will address that in his winding-up speech and will be able to assure the House that when we order the Horizon frigate we shall ensure that we also order a training simulator. We are due to get a type 23 simulator, but not for at least another three years. That is three wasted years, which could have been avoided with a little foresight.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who, unfortunately, is not in his place, on the way in which he has handled the difficult issue of our industrial base. There will always be a stand-off between our defence needs--in other words, the need to give to our troops and our armed services the best available current equipment--and our need to ensure that we have a defence industrial base capable of meeting our needs in the longer term. An obvious example of that is the European fighter aircraft. It would have been very much cheaper and easier for us to have ordered the American aircraft, which are probably very nearly as good, but the view was taken, correctly, that Europe, and especially Great Britain, could not afford to lose the technical capability that we shall need in the longer term to ensure that we can equip ourselves with such aircraft.
There is a trade-off between what we need for our defence purposes and the industrial base that we need to preserve. My right hon. Friend set out clearly and very well the Government's approach to that. I welcome it and look forward to seeing what comes out of it in due course.
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor). I entirely agree with his comments on the European fighter aircraft and I share some of his concerns about the developments in the former Soviet Union and the middle east over our security and foreign policy.
While another year has passed since the previous debate on the Royal Navy, the Navy has certainly dominated my agenda as a Member of Parliament. For instance, I am just about to complete the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Navy, along with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves). I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it has been an interesting, informative and invaluable programme. I am sure that we would both welcome the earlier announcement of the four new vessels for the hydrographic service, with which we spent an interesting day, during which we were greatly impressed by that excellent, world-class service. I am pleased to mention that service because we often tend to forget the invaluable role that it plays.
Column 1170The armed forces parliamentary scheme has certainly introduced me to people and taken me to places I would never have thought possible. I have had meetings with admirals, I have been winched into helicopters and I have been saluted by men in uniform. I have had many memorable experiences, but probably the most memorable of all was my visit to HMS Nottingham with the hon. Member for Hall Green, when the ship was out in the Adriatic enforcing the arms embargo against the former Yugoslavia. There I found myself undertaking a jackstay transfer between HMS Nottingham and another vessel. It was quite an experience to find oneself dangling on a rope, buffeted by the wind, and with no secure, firm deck underneath one's feet. More seriously, when I thought back on that jackstay transfer, which lasted for no more than five minutes, I realised that it has been the experience of Rosyth for the past five years. The base has felt itself to be dangling on a Treasury rope which is becoming ever slacker, with no firm deck of security underneath. The stress and strain of that insecurity has had many effects, not least on people's health. It is not entirely surprising that earlier this week, Walter Strachan, the industrial convenor at Rosyth naval base, was taken into hospital with chest pains. I am sure that the whole House wishes Walter a full and speedy recovery. While I was inquiring about his progress at Queen Margaret hospital in Dunfermline, I also inquired about another strong supporter of Rosyth, Lord Ewing. Again, I am sure that Members on both sides of the House wish him a full and speedy recovery.
During last year's Navy debate, I talked about the strategic and operational importance of Rosyth naval base. It is clear that my words fell on deaf ears, as did the words of many others. When we were assured last February that Rosyth's future was safe and that no decision had been taken, we did not believe that assurance and we certainly do not believe it now. Rosyth's experience of uncertainty and insecurity has lasted for five years. Two days before Christmas 1989, the first rumour came out that the closure of Rosyth naval base was firmly on the agenda for certain people within the Ministry of Defence. The campaign at that time was effective in preventing the closure. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that the intention to close Rosyth did not disappear. The campaign did, however, force the Government to adopt a salami-slicing approach rather than wielding a big axe. The decision to reduce the base to a minor war vessel operating base clearly weakened its position in the defence establishment and resulted in the loss of 800 civilian jobs and the transfer of 1,100 service personnel.
I protest about the manner in which the effective closure of the naval base and the decision on the naval stores were announced. To make the announcements in written answers was a way out for the Government. I accept that this week, at least, we have the opportunity, two days after the written answer, to have a proper debate about the decision on the naval stores. However, to confirm the decision on the effective closure of Rosyth naval base in a written answer not long before Christmas was unacceptable. It would have been far more honest for the Government at least to have made a statement on the Floor of the House which would have allowed questions to be asked immediately.
I return to the history of Rosyth's campaign. When the defence costs study was announced in November 1993, it was once again clear that Rosyth was a target for closure.
Column 1171Sure enough, despite the denials given, that was the recommendation made in July 1994. The decision was then confirmed. The Minister may be thinking, "What is new? We have heard all about Rosyth before." I can only repeat that there has been blow after blow for the loyal, dedicated and committed work force of Rosyth naval base who feel that their loyalty has been repaid with betrayal and broken promises. Moreover, they feel strongly that public money has been wasted. Some £63 million has been spent on improving facilities at the base. Substantial savings were made by the work force which have apparently been ignored.
Some 10,000 defence-related jobs are going in Fife between 1991 and 1996. That estimate was produced not by some Labour research team, but by the Fraser of Allander institute and McKay Consultants. Their report says clearly that Fife is an area where 30 per cent. of gross domestic product is defence-dependent. The unemployment rate is already 24 per cent. more than it is in the rest of Scotland. I would welcome the Minister telling us where those people can go to find alternative work and whether all of them will be offered jobs on the quangos referred to earlier.
I am well aware that defence-related job losses have not been confined to Rosyth and that the latest announcement on the naval support infrastructure affects areas all over the country. I especially mention Exeter, Devonport, Wrangaton and Eaglescliffe. I condemn the way in which the decisions were reached and announced. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) referred to the report by the Select Committee on Defence and to its criticism of the conduct of the defence costs study. I take this opportunity to quote paragraphs 9 and 12 of the report because they have widespread relevance and are not only relevant to naval stores.
The report says:
"The absence of any appraisal of alternative options from the naval support stores consultation documents means that they failed to provide for the proper degree of public accountability: and that the impression was given that the proposals were ill thought out and unlikely to withstand intensive scrutiny . . . Without the results of that investment appraisal it was unsafe for MoD to have reached a conclusion. MoD's view is that the confirmation in broad measure of its favoured option provided by the investment appraisals means that the work was `nugatory'. We utterly reject that view. In matters of such significance, public and parliamentary accountability demands the production and publication of proper financial and operational appraisals, so that justice can be seen to have been done". That point applies not only to the defence costs study on the naval support infrastructure, but to Rosyth naval base and, indeed, to Pitreavie. I hope that the Minister will listen to the concerns being expressed about the decisions on the naval support infrastructure, not just by Opposition Members, but by senior naval personnel who are concerned about the centralisation of the stores.
As I mentioned, the criticisms made by the Select Committee also referred to what has happened over Pitreavie. Yet again, this afternoon I had the dubious pleasure of finding on the notice board a letter with the Ministry of Defence insignia on it. I have learnt to dread such letters, as they always mean bad news and jobs lost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) knows only too well.
Column 1172Pitreavie thought that it had a secure future. Again, in the past two years, money has been spent on improving the facilities there. Less than two years ago, the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the rescue co-ordination centre for the United Kingdom would be at Pitreavie. In July, it was announced that the flag officer for Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland would be moving to Faslane, as part of the effective closure of Rosyth naval base. That meant that the Government decided that Pitreavie was too costly for the RAF to stay there. Last year, the Secretary of State announced that the rescue co-ordination centre and the air officer would be transferred to Leuchars.
That was welcome news to Fife Members at that time, in particular to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). It was regarded as recognition that the people of Fife should be assured that their contribution to the defence of the realm and, in particular, their contribution to rescue co-ordination work were valued and would be retained. Rumours then started--of course, they were denied by the Ministry of Defence--that the rescue co-ordination centre was to go elsewhere, probably Kinloss. I hope that the Minister will confirm today that the RCC is to stay at Leuchars rather than at Kinloss. I would welcome an end to insecurity about Pitreavie and Leuchars.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and, in particular, for the objective way in which she has put the case for the rescue co-ordination centre to be relocated from Pitreavie to RAF Leuchars in my constituency. Is she aware that, last week, the Royal Air Force in Scotland confirmed that the centre was to move to Kinloss, whereas the Ministry of Defence in London declined to give any confirmation whatever, and said that no decision had yet been reached?
Ms Squire: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention. What he has recounted does not surprise me in the slightest. It is all too characteristic of the conduct of the Ministry of Defence. It also relates to crucial lessons that I urge the Ministry of Defence and the Government to learn in respect of the defence of this country and their treatment of those on whom we depend for the defence of the realm.
The Pitreavie saga and the future of the rescue co-ordination centre cause one to wonder who will lose most. Will it be the people whom the service is committed to rescuing or will it be the Government? Once again, we have a Government shambles masquerading as a defence review that involves more broken promises and more money leaving the Fife economy.
The removal of the operational facilities from Pitreavie undermines the future of a naval presence at Rosyth and fuels the widespread view that, however the Ministry of Defence might like to dress it up and talk about a Royal Navy support establishment, in effect it is severing the Navy's links with Rosyth, which will lead to complete closure. It is also characteristic of the Government's defence policy that we in Fife are to be left with holes in the ground. We already have the infamous RD57, and it now looks as though we will have the reinforced concrete bunker at Pitreavie.
Reference to RD57 leads me to Rosyth dockyard. It is not only naval base personnel who have been involved in that permanent jackstay transfer of uncertainty and
Column 1173insecurity; so, too, have the dockyards. In the mid-1980s, Rosyth and Devonport had to deal with partial privatisation. The dockyards then had the fierce argument about where submarine and surface ship refitting work would be allocated. Both dockyards now face full privatisation. When the major customer will always be the Ministry of Defence, when the Ministry of Defence will always have a major interest in those workplaces, and when there is only one bidder for each yard, it is a waste of time and money to proceed with privatisation.
I will give the Minister credit for visiting the dockyard recently. His interest and his personal attention were much appreciated by the work force and the management at the dockyard. I hope that there will be a continuing improvement in direct communication between the upper echelons of the Ministry of Defence and those on the ground who are working for the defence of the country day in, day out. Privatisation, if it proceeds, will make it even more important that the dockyards are treated equally and receive contractual guarantees of the work that is allocated to them in future. I ask the Minister to give me such a guarantee tonight.
I seek further assurances from the Minister. First, I seek an assurance that all decommissioned submarines will be removed from Rosyth, following the welcome assurance that RD57 would not be turned into a graveyard for decommissioned hulks. Secondly, I ask the Minister to repeat that the allocated programme of surface ship work for Rosyth will include aircraft carriers. Thirdly, I seek an assurance that the work force at both dockyards will have their pension arrangements honoured and their redundancy entitlements met. I should like clarification of the Minister's statement concerning other options. Perhaps I am paranoid and suspicious about such phrases.
I now refer to other immediate action that the Government should take in respect of Rosyth and Pitreavie and to some of the overall lessons that are to be learnt. If the Government are serious about offering the Rosyth complex a future and security, we need a positive, co-ordinated approach that will assist employment creation and economic regeneration in an area that is heavily dependent on defence. Nearly 80 per cent. of the naval bases' work force are resident in the Dunfermline district, and approximately 85 per cent. of commercial defence-related output emanates from the Dunfermline district. Economic activity must be stepped up a gear if the Fife economy is to have a chance of staying afloat.
I welcome previous statements about the need for a central Government initiative, but I should like the Minister to answer some questions. First, what resources will the Government allocate to Fife to deal with such high unemployment? In particular, what hard cash will be made available? Secondly, will the Minister update us on what the Scottish Office task force is doing? Thirdly, what is happening about the disposal of land and assets at the Rosyth complex? Will the Ministry of Defence undertake all necessary work to ensure that contaminated land, premises and facilities are properly treated? What was meant by an earlier statement about the responsibility for the whole site and not just a part, and a rejection of the piecemeal approach? Is the MOD now trying to walk away completely from the whole Rosyth site, or will it be realistic and accept that it will always have interests and responsibility?
Column 1174Fourthly, what arrangements are being made to provide the men and women who are facing redundancy with an integrated package which offers proper training and the realistic hope of a job at the end of it? Will the Minister establish an integrated training initiative? What will the Minister do to encourage companies to come to the area and provide real and decently paid permanent jobs, and not casual, short-term and low-paid work?
I draw attention to some general lessons which the Government need to learn from the way in which they have dealt with the Rosyth and Pitreavie work forces. They should reward the loyalty, commitment and dedication of the naval personnel and civilian work forces by providing them at least with some relatively secure decks on which to stand.
I shall quote from the Royal Navy's "Broadsheet" article on the defence costs study, which states:
"It was recognised that, following the changes that have occurred in recent years culminating with "Front Line First", there is a need for stability . . . Change is likely to be a continuing theme but everything will be done to minimize its many effects on those who serve in the Navy and especially upon their morale . . . We have to recognise that change is endemic and strategic uncertainty probably as great as ever before in our history. Nevertheless the Navy Board will be aiming for stability in the fundamental structure of the Service."
If the Government and the Navy are serious about those statements, I suggest they do a number of things.
First, I should like to pick up on a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) that the Government should conduct a full defence review, rather than one led by Treasury demands. That view is not just confined to myself or to Opposition Members. I have had contact with naval personnel and civilian work forces all over the country as a result of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. One of the constant themes --whatever the ship, base or facility that I visited--has been the strong feeling of insecurity and uncertainty at a Treasury-led defence policy, where decisions are determined by the Chancellor rather than by the Secretary of State for Defence.
Mr. Colvin: The hon. Lady's call for a full defence review seems to be a shroud behind which she can hide a non-existent defence policy. Through "Options For Change" and the defence costs study we have had what amounts to a full-scale defence review. What more can the Labour party offer?
Ms Squire: There is a widespread view, not only among naval personnel but among all sections of the armed forces--including retired members--and among academics that the questions posed by the end of the cold war which require difficult issues to be debated have not been adequately dealt with by the Government. There is a feeling that defence reductions have been initiated by Treasury demands for savings. An overall review would outline the strategic and operational requirements for the next five years, and would take us into the 21st century. We will decide on the basis of those decisions what level of defence expenditure will be necessary.
Column 1175armed forces are calling for stability while, on the other, reporting that they are calling for a further defence review with all the instability and uncertainty that that engenders?
Ms Squire: Naval personnel are looking for some stability and certainty, but they are criticising what has happened to them in the past few years. They feel that the Government's defence policy has lurched from one Treasury-determined objective to another. My impression, from my contact with members of the Royal Navy and the civilian work force, is that the person who they would nominate to put out on a permanent jackstay transfer--or, even better, to walk the plank--is none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Some Conservative Members may feel that it might be an attraction if, at the next election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer offered to walk the plank.
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower): Like my hon. Friend, I was one of the first Members to have the benefit of taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I spent some considerable time with the Royal Navy. In addition to the well-made points which she has put to the House, does she feel that one of the fundamental difficulties which the major leaders in the armed forces--the First Sea Lord, the Air Marshal and the head of the Army--find is that they are put in an unstable position because they plainly do not know what the Government want them to do?
There are other lessons which the Government must learn. There was widespread agreement among naval personnel that the Navy can take no further cuts. The feeling is that it has been cut to the bone, and there is no spare flesh. There is also a widespread view that the defence procurement policy of the Government is still unsatisfactory, and that there is a waste of money because of the overpricing of both basic items, such as telephones, and complex equipment. There is a strong feeling that the time that people are being asked to spend away from their families is being unfairly increased.
I return to the argument that was made earlier about people saying that they need some stability and feel uncertain and insecure. I hope that the Government will find ways of listening more closely to what is being said by those who daily serve in the defence of the country.
The third specific lesson that I would ask the Government to take on board is the one that was reflected earlier in the comments of the Second Report of the Defence Select Committee concerning the naval infrastructure--the need for openness, for full consultation and for a complete review of the process of managing and proposing change. I think that we all agree that the country's defence depends on people. However high-tech and expensive the equipment that is available to us, loyal, dedicated and skilled people are needed to make it, maintain it and use it. The Government must start to demonstrate far more clearly their appreciation of the loyalty, commitment and dedication of defence personnel, the civilian work forces and their families. An invaluable way of doing so would
Column 1176be to provide more accurate information and proper consultation and to give those people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central said, a sense of values.
The fourth lesson that I urge the Government to learn from the process of the defence costs study is one that has already been mentioned: the whole business of taking into account industrial procurement. I welcome the hints that have been given about that. I have a special interest in respect of the future of our warship building capacity, and I feel compelled to express again my dismay at the tragic loss and closure of Swan Hunter and the waste of such valuable skills.
It appears that the future of what is left of our warship building capacity is insecure, and I look to the Minister to give an assurance that the long- term procurement plans of the Navy are sufficient to maintain the remaining warship building capacity in this country. I quote the Defence Select Committee again, which said in its Fifth Report of Session 1993-94, at paragraph 96:
"The United Kingdom industrial base is a strategic asset and must be safeguarded accordingly. We believe that it would be unwise to rely entirely on even our closest Allies to provide surge capacity as they have their own priorities and their industry may wish to supply their own national forces first."
In conclusion, I am determined, as are my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and other Opposition Members, that the lessons to be learnt from Rosyth's experience should be neither forgotten nor repeated. I would not wish any other group of naval personnel or civilian work forces to be treated in the way that I think that the Rosyth work force have been treated by the Government.
I trust that, in his reply, the Minister will demonstrate that lessons have indeed been learnt, that the Government are committed to the best traditions of the Royal Navy and the defence of the realm, and that they intend to provide some security for all those who serve our country so well.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am especially grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and especially pleased to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), because we are just completing our attachment to the Royal Navy under the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I should like to say what a pleasure it was to accompany her on the various visits; some of those visits were slightly more hairy than others, notably the jackstay transfer.
We were both enormously impressed by the way in which the scheme was organised. We should like to thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and ask him to pass on our thanks for the way in which it was organised and for the value that was attached to the scheme.
I also wish to put on record our appreciation of the immense professionalism and cheerfulness of all ranks--officers and other ranks-- and the positive attitude, despite some difficult circumstances and change, of all those in the Royal Navy whom we met. It impressed us and we are very pleased to note it for the House.
In a previous debate, I and other hon. Members questioned the concept that the world had become a safer place than it was during the cold war, and therefore the logic that lay behind the massive reductions that have
Column 1177taken place in our defence budgets since "Options for Change". In that, I wish to identify my remarks specifically with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor).
Indeed, if anything, the contrary is now true, in that the world is a less stable place and we are more likely rather than less likely to need our armed forces to protect British or western or European interests. For that, we perhaps need a different balance of forces. The recent exercise of defence costs studies made some progress in trying to solve that problem, and I pay tribute to the Ministers and their predecessors on the Front Bench for the way in which they approached that exercise.
However, if one is to consider, as perhaps we should, the role that we might foresee for our armed forces in the next five or six years, one thing is absolutely for sure--the Royal Navy is crucial and pivotal to the type of force projection that one might imagine to be necessary, especially where there are likely to be extremely sensitive political considerations.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West referred to our participation on board one of Her Majesty's ships in the Adriatic as part of Operation Sharp Guard. That is only one type of activity that exemplifies the way in which the Royal Navy is pivotal to the ability to project a force in an extremely difficult area.
The Royal Navy and any navy like it, but especially the Royal Navy, possesses certain advantages for this purpose. They are: the ability to maintain a self-sustained presence for long periods; a self-sufficiency even where there are no friendly bases in the vicinity; controlled increase or decrease in the scale of force projection required and the possibility of temporary or complete commitment, or indeed withdrawal, as for example might be the case from Bosnia; the choice of highly visible or covert operations; and the advantage of using the same tools, perhaps with the possible exception of SSBNs, as would be used in total war. The Royal Navy therefore affords an extraordinarily potent stand-off capability, or stand- to capability, while using exactly the same investment that the taxpayer has already made for full-scale engagement as might be envisaged during a war.
However, if one believes that that type of force projection is necessary-- as it may well be--to defend British interests, or to act for humanitarian purposes, in the next five or six years, one needs to consider the assets that the Royal Navy might need. I wish to single out the role of the aircraft carrier. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement mentioned HMS Invincible, which is shortly to be replaced in deployment in the Adriatic by HMS Illustrious.
I joined the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West on board an aircraft carrier. We were impressed because, in many ways, such a vessel is the only unit that can provide for a task group a platform capable of two essential ingredients of any military effectiveness. It has the broad spectrum of capabilities in one ship, ranging from organic self-defence or external defence and land attack, through surface warfare, to a highly potent anti- submarine warfare capability, which allows it to carry out composite war commander's duties, whatever those might be in that area. It can also move on along the high seas almost anywhere in the world, where it can poise in international waters without commitment or the need for any host nation to support it.
Column 1178The naval aircraft launched from that vessel might be the first on the scene in any particular situation, which would therefore grant politicians or military commanders alike a number of variable options not otherwise available, at immediate notice.
With that in mind, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who raised with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement the need to start thinking now about replacing one or two of our aircraft carriers, which, in 10 years, will almost certainly be beyond refit capability. HMS Ark Royal is the oldest and would probably be the first to fit the bill. I hope that Ministers will consider seriously now what to do about those extremely important and capable assets in the future, because the cost of replacing or refitting a number of extremely expensive items of defence expenditure could be lumped together rather dangerously in 10 years' time.
The need for any task group force must be considered in conjunction with the need for submarine capability and frigate or destroyer escort. My right hon. Friend the Minister has already mentioned the extremely welcome news about the order for more type 23 frigates. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be able to confirm that the communications systems on those frigates have been improved. I understand from Royal Navy personnel that the existing system posed some problems, so I look forward to my hon. Friend's confirmation that they have been resolved satisfactorily. It would be a great pity to have ship which could not be used in the type of operations we are currently running, for example Operation Sharp Guard. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to offer me good news.
On submarine warfare, I was pleased to hear about the likely orders for batch 22 Trafalgar class submarines. I was also extremely pleased to hear at the time of the defence costs study about the possibility of fitting Tomahawk cruise missiles on those submarines in due course. That would give the Royal Navy an even greater stand-off capability to poise and to deliver a potent threat where necessary. That would enormously improve the way in which we could subtly escalate or de-escalate, if necessary, a military commitment or threat. Those weapons offer a huge advantage because they can be fired from a position unknown to any possible enemy. Those submarines are therefore able to operate from a cloaked position, perhaps well away from any other task group that might be deployed in the area. One of the most important subjects about which Ministers have spoken and which has been referred to recently in Navy journals, is amphibiosity. In any discussions about the role of the Royal Navy in the next six years, amphibiosity must be the key to our ability to deliver or extricate forces in any given situation. The order for the landing platform docks is therefore good news.
I am also pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister has been able to put a time, finally, on the order for the replacement of Fearless and Intrepid. I hope that it will not be subject to any delay, because it has been flagged up on a number of occasions. I hope that that promise is crystallised into reality.
At the time of the defence costs study the excellent idea of a joint rapid defence force was mentioned, but things have gone rather quiet since then. From the discussions
Column 1179that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and I had with members of the armed services during our attachment, we know that they are keen on that idea. They were rather disappointed that they had not heard more about it.
Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend has raised the most important matter of a JRDF. I am glad that he is excited by that prospect. He will understand that that concept requires a great deal of work to get the operations and strategy deployment correct. I can assure him that a great deal of work is going on and we hope to be able to make a detailed announcement, certainly not in the near future, but in the medium future. We are anxious to complete that work as soon as we can.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for that announcement, which will be widely welcomed in the Royal Navy and by the other forces.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the new hydrographic vessel. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and I were extraordinarily impressed by the professionalism of the service operated under the command of Captain H at the hydrographic squadron. I am sure that the hon. Lady shares my pleasure that the new vessel is considerably larger than the existing one. It will be a great extension to the squadron's capability, because it has long argued for a longer hull to improve its sea -keeping capabilities so that it can put to sea, irrespective of the weather, in whichever section it is asked to operate. The members of the squadron will be able to keep going on-station, without having to dive because of storms and so forth. The squadron will be delighted by the announcement. There is a slight question mark over that vessel, however, because I read somewhere that it might have a maximum speed capability of not more than 17 knots. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will prick up his ears at that, because, given our aim to have ships that are flexible in terms of investment, whether they are used in a Falklands operation or anywhere else, we should consider whether there is a cheap way to improve that speed should the need arise. That would be in the interests of joint force operability at a later stage.
A number of concerns became apparent to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and I during our various visits to ships and ships' companies. I had intended to allude to them, but they have already been mentioned by the hon. Lady. My hon. Friend the Minister knows, however, about my concern about the pressure on family life when ships' crews are at sea, whether on Operation Sharp Guard or elsewhere, and away from the home port for seven months or more. Everything that we can do to reduce that time spent at sea would be greatly appreciated.
I cannot resist mentioning morale. Despite the tribulations which have been experienced by the Royal Navy and the other services as the result of several changes, the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and I found that morale in the Royal Navy is remarkably good, all things considered. I do not feel that it will be enormously improved by the comments by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr.
Column 1180Fatchett), who could not resist his classist, socialist revanchism by pointing out the differentials between the pay of officers and other ranks. It would have been interesting to hear whether the Labour party intended to change that. The First Sea Lord happened to be in the Gallery at that time and I am sure that he was interested in those comments as well. Such remarks will not help him as he tries to attract quality graduates to become officers in the Royal Navy. It will not help those graduates, nor those chief petty officers and others who aspire to be officers if the politics of envy are introduced even on matters of pay into debates here.