Mr. Jamieson: I shall give way in a moment. We have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he has clarified his position on the matter. If he wants to put out a public statement to make absolutely certain that everyone in the House understands that he never shared a platform with people who espoused CND views, I would be happy to read that statement.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. This debate on the Royal Navy is of great importance. I deprecate what appear to be personal comments being made across the Floor of the House. It would be for the good of the debate if no more references were made, and if any differences were settled privately outside the Chamber.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I regard that not as a point of order, but as a point of fact. I have given my advice on how the matter might be handled. I hope that that advice will be heeded by both hon. Gentlemen.
The debate is of great importance to the Royal Navy, to Plymouth and to the south-west region. The south-west economy relies heavily on defence spending and defence-related work. Plymouth, in particular, and Devonport are totally committed to the defence of the country, but how committed is the Navy to Devonport? In particular, how committed are the Government to Devonport, and to the men and women who have given many years of loyal service to the Navy, in both military and civilian capacities?
In recent years, cuts have been made in services generally, but naval cuts and closures, in particular, have had serious effects on Plymouth. As promises to maintain jobs in the dockyard and the supply depots have been cynically broken, a feeling of betrayal pervades the work force and the local people, not only because of the cuts and those broken promises, but because there is no support and no planning. The Minister made it clear that the Government have no aspiration to find new employment for the people who have lost their jobs, many of whom have skills in that sector.
The Ministry of Defence has consistently failed to provide help for redundant workers, and support for service personnel. Only recently, following considerable pressure from me and from others, it started working with the local authority in my area and with other bodies to secure the best use of redundant land.
Mr. Soames: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would wish to clarify his comment that the Government have done nothing for service personnel. The Government's resettlement programme for service personnel is unmatched by any other institution in this land. It is widely regarded as the most effective organisation of its type. The hon. Gentleman should clarify what he said.
Mr. Jamieson: I thank the Minister for that and I will tell him exactly what I mean. The Minister must bear some responsibility for the thousands of people who have lost their jobs in Her Majesty's royal dockyard over the years. Most of them have not found alternative employment, and the Government have failed them by not helping to find them new employment. The Minister may be interested to know that the unemployment figures rose this week in the south-west region and in Plymouth, in particular. The main reason for the increase is the cut in defence, over which he is presiding. Workers in the dockyard in Plymouth are justifiably disappointed by job losses, but they become angry when they see massive waste and injustice in the system. The MOD justifies redundancies by saying that they will save money, but then wastes millions of pounds on the refurbishment of official residences, on consultancy fees, and on gross inefficiency of breathtaking proportions.
Column 1194Recently, Tory Members have been trying to blame local authorities for cuts in education, saying that the authorities were wasteful, yet when it comes to waste and inefficiency, the MOD has cornered the market. In the past three years, £55 million has been written off in lost rent on empty homes alone. Only four years before HMS Andromeda was offered for sale, £27 million was spent on its refit, and we hear that the asking price may be as little as £1 million. Those are just are two examples of waste.
Usually, the debate on the Royal Navy rightly concentrates on weapons, hardware and logistics, but I want to examine some of the issues that are important to the people who keep the Navy going, either by serving on ships or on shore, or by working in a civilian capacity to ensure that the Navy is fit to respond to any situation. The MOD is guilty of paying too little attention to the welfare of its employees in relation to housing, jobs and education. On Tuesday, the Minister announced the loss of jobs in Royal Navy supply depots at Devonport, Exeter and Wrangaton, all in my part of the country. The total loss amounted to 734 jobs, 427 of them in my Devonport constituency. That constitutes a further dismantling of Europe's most efficient naval supply network. Those decisions defy logic and common sense.
How can it be sensible to dismantle the supply stores for naval ships based in Devonport so that they are to be supplied from Portsmouth, 170 miles away, and through the narrow roads of Hampshire, Dorset and South Devon? What sort of logic states that having three depots close at hand in Devon to supply ships in Devonport is, as the Minister said,
"fragmented by nature and difficult to manage"
but that supplying them from somewhere 170 miles away will be more efficient, despite the fact that £9.5 million will be spent on "modernised infrastructure" at Portsmouth? How can the Minister claim in his letter to me that
"Devonport is and will continue to be the principal Naval base on the South Coast"
when he admits that the current situation of more ships being based at Plymouth than at Portsmouth will change as the 4th Frigate Squadron builds up at Portsmouth, and as the type 22 frigates are paid off?
Under "Options for Change", and as recommended by the defence costs study, the total reduction in stockholdings will be in excess of 50 per cent. over five years. That is disproportionate to the reduction in the size of the Royal Navy and does not reconcile with the perceived work load. I can conclude only that there is a hidden agenda of further cuts in the size of our Navy, and a threat to the very existence of Devonport as a major naval base.
Mr. Jamieson: I am pleased that the Minister has been able to reassure me. However, he must realise that those who have been in Plymouth for a long time know that similar Ministers have given similar assurances over the past 10 years. In 1983, when we said that there would be massive job losses at Devonport, we were told that we were scaremongering and that there would be no cuts.
Column 1195Nearly 14,000 people were employed at the dockyard at that time. We were told the same in 1987 and 1992. No doubt at the next election we will be told the same again. However, I am pleased that the Minister has given me that assurance, and I promise that I will repeat it many times, which I am sure will bring him pleasure.
The Government recently offered for sale the royal dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth for total privatisation. The Government have made the dockyards so unattractive that, even after spending £7.2 million on consultants to help sell off the dockyards, there was only one bidder for Devonport and one for Rosyth. The Government spent £7.2 million to tell Devonport Management Ltd. and the Babcock International Group about the dockyards that they already occupied. That money could have been better used to help the many thousands of people in Devonport and in Scotland who have lost their jobs in the past few years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West asked who will underwrite the redundancy payments. I ask the Minister again. Will it be the Government or will the private company that takes over be expected to do that? The total redundancy estimate for Devonport is £140 million.
Quite rightly, workers want to be reassured about their rights and their conditions of work. The Government have previously given assurances that those would not change after privatisation. Will the Minister confirm what legal rights the workers will have after privatisation? Can he categorically assure workers that their loyal service over many years will be rewarded by the continuance of the contracts that they have enjoyed in the past and that they will still enjoy the same pension and redundancy rights?
The privatisation threatens the economy of Plymouth and the surrounding areas partly because it creates uncertainty about employment. Already, many people in the Devonport dockyard receive redundancy one week and are taken on a week after on short-term contracts and reduced pay. Privatisation will not bring any benefits for the work force at Devonport and it is hard to see what benefits it will bring for the Royal Navy. Only the Treasury will benefit. It is a defence policy run from planet Portillo or asteroid Aitken. The Ministry of Defence now offers better career prospects and job security to merchant bankers and financial consultants than to those serving and supplying the Royal Navy in defence of the realm. Another matter that is of great concern to my constituents, and to people throughout the country, is naval housing. While my constituents who have loyally served their country lose their jobs, inefficiency and waste run riot throughout the Ministry of Defence. Let us examine the running of the naval living quarters. The Ministry of Defence owns, as at 31 December 1994, 12,408 vacant properties--15 per cent. of its stock of houses. Some 236 of those are in my constituency of Devonport. Those 12,408 houses would be the equivalent of a town such as Canterbury, Banbury or Taunton. The Ministry of Defence housing policy is disastrous. It lacks planning and is riddled with incompetent management. The number of empty homes is increasing almost daily. The empty homes have resulted in loss of rent of £55 million in the past three years. There is also the loss of council tax to local authorities as well as the cost of security and maintenance, which, by the Minister's
Column 1196admission to me in a written answer, has been £355,000 in the past two years. Is the Minister aware that 118 former wives of naval personnel were evicted from their homes in the past five years? Last year, Plymouth city council had to rehouse 77 ex-service families who had been declared homeless and evicted by their former employers, the Ministry of Defence.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will my hon. Friend recognise that there is a similar problem at Deal, where the properties of the Royal Marines are deserted and where there is temporary housing? It is appalling and the Royal Navy and the Admiralty must do something with those properties.
Mr. Jamieson: I agree with my hon. Friend. They must be part of the 12,408 homes to which I had referred, or perhaps they will be added to that figure in the next few months. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that.
Is the Minister aware of the case of my constituent, Sharon Terrell, who lives in Barne Barton in St. Budeaux in Plymouth? She separated from her naval husband after being assaulted. She is facing eviction from naval quarters despite the fact that she can see 15 empty Ministry of Defence properties on her estate from the window of her kitchen. She is still paying rent. In the next few weeks the Minister's Department will evict that woman and her former home will lie empty. Would it not make more sense to allow her to continue to live in the property, paying the rent and looking after it on behalf of the Royal Navy rather than having another empty house and a homeless young woman?
The evictions, inefficiency and failure to act continue despite the devastating criticism of Ministry of Defence housing management by the Government's own task force, set up by the Department of the Environment. It published its report in July 1994. It may be instructive to hear what that task force said about the Ministry of Defence. The report states:
"Between £30 million and £100 million is lost by the taxpayer each year by 10,000 homes remaining empty."
It goes on:
"The MoD, as the largest holder of empty homes, has not been amenable to influence."
It also said:
"Effective action by Defence Ministers is urgently needed and should not be further delayed."
Most tellingly it said:
"For more than two years, frequent and energetic efforts have been made to persuade the MoD to reduce their vacancies . . . Regrettably our assessment is that the Ministry of Defence appears to have been unwilling to accept many of these suggestions." Is that not a major condemnation of the Ministry of Defence by another Government Department?
On the evictions of former wives of service personnel, the report accused the Ministry of Defence of "shortsighted, anti-social activity". Will the Minister comment on those matters?
The Government responded to the report in July 1994. They said: "Since the Task Force report was written, vacancies have now started to fall."
That is blatantly untrue. The number of vacant homes increased by 2,000 between January and December 1994. They then said:
"The Government proposes to set annual targets and to publish the Department's achievements at the end of each year."
Column 1197Will the Minister tell us whether the Royal Navy achieved its targets for empty homes last year, and tell us when this year's figures be published? Will he freeze all evictions of naval families from their quarters until the scandal of empty properties has been resolved? He could make inroads into the mass of empty properties by releasing the 94 married quarters on the Furse Park estate in Barne Barton in my constituency to either a housing association or to Plymouth city council, which is desperate for family accommodation. The Government's response to the increase in the number of empty naval homes was to set up the Crown housing trust, yet another Tory quango gravy train. We are told that the chief executive was given a salary of £80,000 a year and even offered £20,000 performance-related pay. I look forward to the Minister telling us how much performance-related pay that man will get because the number of empty properties has increased since he got the job.
The "new arrangements" for service housing have cost £5 million since 1991 and, of course, consultants were paid £3.3 million for the failed project. The Secretary of State for Defence said that the trust "encountered difficulties"; then it was scrapped and replaced by the Defence housing executive, an agency--so-called--with responsibility for privatising the whole MOD estate. In other words, the MOD continues to set up quangos and agencies while the number of empty home grows.
Is the Minister aware that a report published last year by Crisis said that 25 per cent. of all the single homeless had previously served in the armed forces and that the advice and help given to those coming out of the services was not adequate? I stand by my earlier comments.
Negotiations are currently under way in Plymouth about a matter in which the MOD might be able to help. It is an example of how the Ministry could assist my constituents and the health service at the same time. The Ministry of Defence must become more responsive to the needs of the community that surround it and should be helpful rather than obstructive. There is the opportunity for the Ministry to act positively in Plymouth and to help the health service and the taxpayer instead of considering only the narrow remit of its own balance sheet. I am referring to the negotiations about the Cumberland house site in Devonport.
The Plymouth Community Services NHS trust--trusts are one of the Government's favourite creations--has been attempting to purchase MOD land and property for the development of a much-needed health facility for the local community in Devonport. However, the Ministry is setting higher hurdles and costs for the purchase of the site and adjoining property, which will restrict the trust's ability to fund the project. Unless the deal can be struck by the end of March this year, the project is likely to founder, thus denying a deprived area of Plymouth of a much-needed local health facility. It appears that the Ministry's desire to gain as much profit as possible from the trust could put the deal in jeopardy. I ask the Minister in all sincerity to intervene personally in the negotiations between the Defence Land Agents and the trust to ensure that the negotiations are completed successfully and without delay for the benefit of the local community, the MOD and the taxpayer.
Another issue connected with naval establishments, and one which is giving rise to great concern, is hunting. As I discovered after tabling a number of written questions,
Column 1198the taxpayer is underwriting the cost of paying for service men to go hunting during duty hours. Some of the costs for the maintenance and upkeep of kennels are also paid by the MOD.
Mr. Colvin: I have never seen a sailor on a horse, and this debate is supposed to be about the Royal Navy. Let us remember that this year we are talking about VE day celebrations. I recall, when I was very small, watching the victory parade in 1945. There was great difficulty in finding four admirals to get on the four grey horses for the parade, so I really do not understand what connection there is between hunting and the Royal Navy.
Mr. Jamieson: I can assist the hon. Gentleman. Naval personnel are riding to hounds from military establishments across the country. He may be interested to know that the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who was previously the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and is now the chairman of the Conservative party, said that hunting promotes "good tactical ground appreciation" and that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) recently said that hunting "developed character" and that there was
"nothing cruel in the great and glorious death of a fox in the field".-- [ Official Report , 31 January 1995; Vol. 253, c.836.] Like the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), I do not know where they are keeping the horses on the submarines and ships.
Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend for that information. Will the Minister deny rumours that bell-bottomed trousers are to be phased out by the Navy as a cost-cutting exercise? Will he be supplying the men with jodhpurs and red coats instead? Has the MOD hatched a new strategy to introduce men riding into battle on horseback? Will the Minister be replacing the battleships and nuclear submarines with sailors in red coats on hunters patrolling our shorelines and shouting "tally-ho" and blasting bugles at unwanted intruders?
Dr. Reid: I am fascinated by my hon. Friend's detailed examination of expenditure cuts. Has he come across any reports that the Ministry of Defence is to cut the cavalry to one spur on the basis that, once one side of the horse is moving, the other is likely to follow?
Column 1199Unfortunately, hunting and riding on horseback are part of naval expenditure and my point is that they should not be. Why does the Ministry of Defence support the continuance of cruel and barbaric hobbies? Will the Minister give an assurance that not one single penny of taxpayers' money will be spent on hunting, either directly or indirectly?
I shall now deal with the education of service children, especially children whose parents are serving in the Navy. Last year, £133 million was spent on the Ministry of Defence boarding school allowance. I accept that service children need stable education and agree that the Government should provide assistance, but the whole system lacks accountability. Accountability is especially important in this instance as so many parents are abroad and unable to monitor their children's education.
I have written to the Ministry many times, so the Minister will know that many of the private independent schools benefiting from the scheme have poor examination results. We are not sure how most of the schools are performing because only nine HMI/Ofsted reports have been published on schools that receive the Ministry's boarding school allowance.
Finborough school in Suffolk and Rodney school in Nottingham both had mediocre reports from HMI and Ofsted but continue to receive hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money through the boarding school allowance scheme. Why is the Ministry supporting such low standards in private schools? A constituent of mine, who is a serving member of the Royal Navy, has children at Finborough school. The principal at the school refused to send out the Ofsted report to parents, even after repeated requests. Eventually, those reports had to be sent out by the Minister's Department. Why does not the Minister use more local education authority boarding schools? The Service Childrens Education Association admits that the results in those schools are often better than those in the private, independent sector, and, of course, they are always cheaper, because the non-boarding costs are met by local education authorities. I also ask the Minister to look carefully at the role of the Service Childrens Education Association. How does it monitor the schools which it has on its admissible schools list? Does it have the resources to carry out checks and inspections or does it use only word of mouth? Many service children are being short-changed by some of those schools. Moreover, the taxpayer is being short-changed. Will the Minister consider introducing more accountability to the system? Will the Government look at ways in which to check the standards of those schools, which receive millions of pounds of taxpayers' money? I ask the Minister to make a firm commitment to Devonport as the major dockyard and naval base. Will he give the assurances, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West asked and for which I am now asking, that when or if those dockyards are privatised, the work force will retain the pension and other rights that they currently enjoy? Will he examine carefully the inefficiency and waste that is destroying jobs in my constituency and is burning the heart out of our naval capacity?
Column 12008.1 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): It was a good thing that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame Janet Fookes) was presiding over our debate earlier, as the exchanges between the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) became quite heated. I very much hope that the two gentlemen can join together for a game of bowls at Plymouth this weekend and that my hon. Friend the Member for Drake is around to umpire the game--otherwise that, too, might come to a sticky end.
We are debating the Royal Navy five years after the collapse of communism, the withdrawal of the iron curtain and the end of the cold war. It is time to assess the peace dividend, if there is such a dividend. Hon. Members have referred to the new world order. I would call it disorder, with 15 conflicts now in progress around the world, many of them involving United Nations forces on deployment, and with another 15 or so situations almost at flash point, where hostilities could break out at any time. It is a very uncertain world in which we now live, following the certainty that persisted during the cold war.
In that respect, we need to think carefully about our defence role three, which is to contribute to promoting the United Kingdom's wider security interests through the maintenance of international peace and stability. I have long maintained that there are insufficient resources--in fact, hardly any resources--set aside specifically to honour that commitment to role three. Her Majesty's Government can meet their commitments on those international obligations to assist the United Nations in its peacemaking and peacekeeping roles only by taking resources from roles one and two. Role one is the defence of the United Kingdom and its dependent territories and role two is the resisting of threats to the United Kingdom and our allies such as NATO.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) referred to the matching of resources with commitments, which is quite right. One has to ask what are our commitments under role three, as set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? Obviously, in this day and age, maximum flexibility is a very important principle of war. However, it is difficult to determine precisely Britain's national interests in the international scene. What are our interests in places such as Cambodia, east Africa or Kashmir? Should we be involved in such operations?
I argue that no other country in the world has a wider interest in free and uninterrupted trade. Britannia may no longer rule the waves, but she has tremendous interest in world peace and stability. Our overseas investments are huge. I suspect that, as a percentage of our overall investments-- internationally and domestically--our overseas investments are probably as large as that of any other country. It is against that background that we debate the state and the role of the Royal Navy.
I shall concentrate on three specific aspects, because many of the points that I would have otherwise made have already been covered by hon. Members. Defence is bedevilled with acronyms and I shall try a few on the House. I shall talk about DIB, ACP, STUFT and the TSCS. To enlighten hon. Members, those acronyms stand
Column 1201for the defence industrial base, the arms conversion project, ships taken up from trade and the tri-service chaplains school. I welcome the emphasis of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement on preserving the viability of our defence industrial base and on the importance of keeping a watchful eye on the reliability of our overseas partners in collaborative defence projects, from a political as well as from an industrial point of view. He referred to 45 different collaborative armaments projects which are proceeding at the moment. It is important in international collaboration that the United Kingdom has a proper share in the development of the projects and not only in their manufacture, because if we forfeit the development aspects of our armament projects we throw away the seed corn that keeps industry going and enables Britain to maintain the essential leading edge in technological advance.
Hon. Members have referred to the importance of value for money in defence procurement. No one would question the importance of buying the best possible equipment for our armed forces. However, there is also a case for taking into account what I would call the social cost of not buying British. If one buys from overseas, one may end up with a very good product at a unit cost slightly less than that on the home market, simply because some of the production runs of equipment in big overseas manufacturers such as those in the United States enable unit costs to be reduced. So, one must bear in mind the importance of maintaining Britain's industrial defence capability and ensure that it grows.
A case in point is the Westland EH101 helicopter and the order for 25 support helicopters to which several hon. Members have referred. At the moment, we hope that that order will be confirmed. However, it is important that the order is confirmed for the full 25 and not fewer because of the importance of sales to third countries. There is no doubt that that helicopter, which is in the forefront of technology and available in a number of different versions, is attractive to many potential overseas buyers. But those buyers will be looking at how many Her Majesty's Government order. If the order is for any fewer than 25, they will ask why the British Government are buying fewer of those aircraft than they had originally said they would. I want there to be a full order for 25 and I think that that view is shared by all hon. Members.
It is important to consider carefully the value of so-called offsets when we buy from overseas. There has been a big debate about heavy transports for the Royal Air Force. I know that I am digressing slightly from the Royal Navy, but I believe that this point is applicable to naval projects as well. It is important that when we have to buy from overseas, the offsets that we obtain for British industry to compensate for those purchases contain proper development work and are not just what is called tin-bashing. The work must have real technological value to maintain the viability of our industry. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central also referred to the decline in our defence industrial base. He spoke of the restructuring taking place world wide and he raised the question of a possible European common procurement policy, which he suggested would be damaging to British industry. To some extent, that is true, but it is important that we collaborate with our European partners to spread the capital and development costs of new projects and that we do not, when looking for overseas partners, always
Column 1202look across the Atlantic to the United States. The United States seems to get the best of most deals. I remember that when the Conservative Government took office in 1979, the so-called two-way street across the Atlantic was 15:1 in favour of the United States. It is now about 2:1 and diminishing. It is important that the two-way street, if it is to be maintained, is balanced. We must, however, have partners in Europe as well as partners across the Atlantic.
Mr. Fatchett: There is a danger in the European argument of expressing our position in absolute terms. That was not my intention. There are substantial benefits from European co-operation. My point is that we should work out the extent of that co-operation both in procurement and production. At a certain point, there is a potential downside. I am not saying that I am against European co-operation. I would encourage it, but we must be aware of the downside when it occurs.
Opposition Members have referred to Labour's pledge for a diversification agency; I wonder how it would be funded. If it was not funded straight from taxpayers' money, from where could it get funds other than those available from the Konver fund within the European Union? Would the agency be an interventionist board, such as the National Enterprise Board of which we do not have good memories in terms of what it fulfilled during its existence?
The questions raised about the importance of our defence industrial base almost anticipated what has already been decided by the Select Committees on Trade and Industry and on Defence. In our wisdom, we too felt that this was a matter that needed to be addressed. That is why the two Select Committees have combined to set up a joint Sub-Committee to investigate this precise matter with a fairly broad brief. The intention is to report before the summer recess. I very much hope that the Sub-Committee, which is a hybrid, will produce the vigour that one usually sees in hybrids; I speak as a farmer with some knowledge of genetics and breeding.
We are all concerned about the risk to our defence industrial base because another important principle of war is defence in depth. In view of the importance of maintaining supplies for our armed forces and of providing them with equipment that will be supreme, we must ensure that the defence industrial base is sound. In the defence costs estimates, much is said about our stores set-up. The Select Committee's report on the naval stores proposals, which have been addressed by a number of hon. Members today, is valid. With the reduction of stores, which is intended to save money, one cuts the output required from Britain's factories. That, again, is bad news for our defence industries and makes it even more important that we address the problem.
I was interested to see a pamphlet, which most hon. Members have probably received, entitled "Networker". It comes from the arms conversion project which was set up to look at the whole question of diversification and conversion. It seems to be almost a blueprint of the Labour party's diversification and conversion programme. Under the objectives for the project--which I shall not
Column 1203bother to read out--there is nothing about reacting to closures, nor about how to deal with the mobility of those made redundant. There has been much more scope for labour to move around the country since the Government introduced shorthold and assured tenancies which have breathed new life into the private rented sector. People who lose their jobs are no longer stuck; they can move around the country to find jobs where they are available.
Nor does the arms conversion project deal with retraining. Although my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has stressed the importance of the Government's resettlement programme, more could be done to retrain those made redundant from the armed forces. Here I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and the establishment of its training company at Tidworth which is doing a great deal in this respect.
The second acronym I mentioned was STUFT, which stands for ships taken up from trade. An important principle of war is mobility. All hon. Members have drawn attention to the rundown of our merchant fleet, which has been torpedoed more effectively by the Treasury than by any Exocet missile. There is no doubt that the scrapping of the 100 per cent. investment allowances which were available to shipowners did a great deal to reduce the size of our merchant fleet. It is important, therefore, in terms of the importance of maintaining international United Nations operations, that we have adequate merchant ships so that we can fulfil such requirements.
I recall that during the Falklands operation, in addition to 43 Royal Navy ships, 44 merchant ships were involved. We could not have mounted that operation or our operation in the Gulf without the support of the merchant fleet or the crews to man the ships. It is all very well chartering ships from overseas, but if one does not have the crews to man them, one is in considerable difficulty. I know that the Ministry of Defence has said that it will carry out a paper exercise, which it calls a scenario-led discussion, some time in the coming month. That is not good enough. I would prefer, on an irregular basis, perhaps once a year, the Secretary of State for Defence to blow the whistle and say, "We are off tomorrow." He could say exactly what he wanted by way of tonnage and he could then see whether the Baltic Exchange and the merchant navy could respond and produce the ships. That would be quite a simple desk exercise which should be carried out irregularly without notice to test the ability of the merchant fleet to respond to what is required.
I am also concerned that the Ministry of Defence may not have adequate powers to requisition ships. In the case of national mobilisation or a threat to the security of the realm, it probably has adequate powers under existing legislation. However, that may not be the case with overseas operations in support of the UN, such as supplying humanitarian aid. Such operations may not be covered by the legislation giving the Government the power to requisition ships. I should like to know whether the powers are adequate for that purpose or whether the Government merely have to rely on normal charter operations for additional shipping if they have to mount such international operations for the United Nations.
One passing thought is that the former Soviet Union countries desperately need foreign currency. If we want proof that it is important from a defence strategic point of
Column 1204view to have a strong merchant fleet, one has only to consider the size of the fleet that the former Soviet Union had in the days of the cold war. It was massive, and it was not just to earn the Soviet Union foreign currency; it was because the Soviet Union took the view that it was an essential resource in what might become a hot war. Most of the former Soviet Union's ships are still around. Many of them are sitting in dock doing nothing. When we see the former Soviet Union and its economic plight, there is scope for considering an arrangement with countries in the former Soviet Union which have joined the partnership for peace under NATO to make their hulls available to western powers, if they need them, in order to provide resources to carry out international operations for the United Nations.
There has been some debate about the tri-service chaplains school. I am aware that the chaplains school which, at the moment, is at Amport near Andover, is already a combination of Royal Navy and RAF chaplains. Army chaplains, who are moving out of Bagshot park, will amalgamate with them. Several alternatives have been put forward for consideration, including Eltham, Guildford, the Royal Naval college at Greenwich and Amport house. Eltham and Guildford have now been eliminated from the contest, so it is a straightforward choice between Amport and the Royal Naval college at Greenwich.
Many rumours have been going around. The matter is local to my constituency, so I am concerned about the future of Amport house. Building consultants have looked at Amport house and considered how it could be extended to provide facilities for a tri-service chaplains school. I believe that the cost of the extension to Amport is about £600,000. One must compare that with the £15 million or more that would be involved if the tri-service chaplains school were to go to the Royal Naval college at Greenwich.
It is important also to consider the cost per student day. Amport has now succeeded in bringing down its costs from £79 to £73 per student day. If the amalgamation can go forward and there is a tri-service chaplains school at Amport, the cost could go down to about £56 per student day. That seems to be economical. It gives rise to two questions: first, which would be the best base for the tri-service chaplains school? Secondly, what should be done about the Royal Naval college at Greenwich? It is a very important listed building of great historic and architectural importance.
The time has come for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to shed responsibility for historic buildings. We now have a Department of National Heritage. It should be a simple bookkeeping transaction to transfer those buildings into the responsibility of the Secretary of State for National Heritage. That would remove from the Ministry of Defence what could be a very burdensome liability in the future.
I applaud hon. Members' support for our Royal Navy and their calls for stability. That is what our armed forces and the country want. We may no longer be able to boast the biggest Navy in the world, but I am certain that hon. Members will agree that we can still say that we have the best Navy.