|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Duncan Smith: It is quite remarkable that a matter of hours after your welcome elevation to the Chair, Mr. Speaker, the Government, for all the crocodile tears shed about bypassing Parliament, chose, on this prime issue of the defence of the realm, not to come anywhere near the House to make a statement about it. After all, this announcement represents the loss of a quarter of our front-line fleet in one fell move. The Government chose simply to try and slide the news away on a quiet Saturday, without any comment.
The hon. Gentleman talked about using other assets, but what specific arrangements are there to cover this gap in capability? For example, he talked about securing the patrol of Trident, our new deterrent, but as it is clearly not possible to use surface ships to glide around indicating where Trident is, how does he intend to do that? Is there a chance that we may be able to fill some of that capability by bringing some of the Upholder class back into service by arrangement with the Canadians, to whom they are about to be leased? Would that assist, and has any arrangement been made for it?
The third question relates to the Swiftsure class, which the Minister discussed. We have two classes of hunter-killer submarines: Trafalgar and Swiftsure. Swiftsure has been in service since the 1970s, and for much longer than Trafalgar. Are the Government saying that they have discovered a problem on Swiftsure, or that Swiftsure vessels have proved pretty reliable during their time in service and that they will be the first boats to be put back into service as there is literally nothing wrong with them? Is the Minister going to withhold all boats from service simply because there may be a possible defect that has not materialised in any other vessel? Finally, what will happen to the crews during this period? Will skeleton crews be left on the boats, and will they lose some of their skills? How will the Minister cover the gap in capability for individual crew members?
Such questions ought to have been raised in the House earlier and answered immediately. The Government should not avoid their responsibilities in this way and it is essentially a damning position for them to be brought to the Dispatch Box by the Opposition on this matter.
Mr. Spellar: I thought that I had had my fill of pompous speeches yesterday, but the speech of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) follows that great tradition. In reply to his fairly inadequate response, there is a defence debate on Thursday and Defence questions on Monday, and on both occasions he could easily raise such matters without any difficulty.
I shall, however, deal with the hon. Gentleman's questions now, starting with those relating to the Upholder class of submarines, which the Conservative Government scrapped in 1993. When the Labour party came to power, that decision had already been taken and the programme was well advanced. [Interruption.] As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we followed on from the previous Government's failure to dispose of the Upholder submarines which, however, we managed to sell to our ally Canada. One submarine has already gone to the Canadians and of course I have made inquiries about the availability of the others. The first one will not be available until next March, so that does not seem to be a suitable alternative.
The hon. Gentleman discussed the shortage of facilities. The critical difficulty relates not to facilities, but to the time scale of the repair. The repair itself is fairly basic and, in engineering terms, uncomplicated. However, the
On other assets, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, we have surface vessels with towed arrays. We also have Nimrod aircraft, and shall examine using them more intensively, but that is satisfactory only in the short to medium term. We are already having discussions on other possible facilities with our ally the United States.
On the question of examining for the defect on the Swiftsure class, it is simply a case of looking at the cooling system and ascertaining whether individual vessels have the generic defect. If they have, we shall, of course, include them in the programme of repair and maintenance.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised another question about crews, the answer to which will partly depend on the nature of the repairs and where the vessels are tied up. As I understand the situation, if the vessels are in a tidal berth, they require more crew on board for watch and engineering functions, and engineers will also be required. If the vessels are in a non-tidal berth, fewer crew will be required.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised a question about maintaining skills through training. Surprisingly enough, the Navy is already looking at that, as I am sure he would have expected it to. Some sailors may not be required for those watch and engineering functions--if so, the Navy intends to allow them more shore leave to spend time with their families, because there will inevitably be some disruption.
Let me answer the question that the hon. Gentleman did not pose, either, in effect, in his letter or in his questions today, about the length of time involved. Until we have a full report from Navy engineers, we shall not be able to identify the length of time required. Had the hon. Gentleman waited a few days, I might have been in a better position to give him an answer.
Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. Does he appreciate that the people who live in communities adjacent to the relevant facilities--such as the Royal Naval Devonport dockyard in Plymouth, which will carry out the work--need to have confidence in their safety and that of their families? Will he join me in expressing confidence in the highly skilled work force and their ability to carry out the work swiftly and effectively? Will he also give me an assurance that his door, and those of his ministerial colleagues, will be open to Members and our constituents, because the spotlight will no doubt remain on this issue?
Does not the Minister's answer punch a substantial hole in Britain's defence capability for the foreseeable future? That capability was substantially weakened by the decision to sell the Upholder class of submarines. That decision was taken purely for financial reasons by the previous Government. This would have been embarrassing at the time of the cold war. Would it not also have been embarrassing during the Kosovo campaign, when one of those submarines was responsible for using the Tomahawk cruise missile system? Is not that an argument for fitting Tomahawk cruise missiles to the new type 45 destroyers?
Finally, does not this occasion provide an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of a European security and defence policy? Should not the Government seek co-operation with our European allies and, in particular, co-ordinate patrols with the French with regard to the nuclear deterrent that France deploys alongside the United Kingdom?
Mr. Spellar: I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for dividing the Opposition on this matter. I assure him that we have long-standing and close relations with the United States Navy in such matters and that we are already undertaking discussions with it. That welcome move should provide a degree of confidence and reassurance.
On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point about Upholder submarines, he knows that that decision was taken in 1993. Several Conservative Defence Ministers have since been through the MOD but none of them saw fit to change that decision. There is an argument that having a wider variety of vessels and types of class is an advantage. Of course, huge costs are associated with that--not only in terms of training and operational experience but in terms of support systems and maintenance facilities. That is always a required balance.
The decision to scrap the Upholder class was taken by the previous Administration. That decision has gone by and, therefore, we have to work as effectively as we can with the constraints and the vessels that we have.