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The Minister said that the decision would have no effect on the Trident programme. However, he also said that it would affect the operational programme. What effect will it have on the Clyde submarine base at Faslane? As my hon. Friend knows from a recent meeting with me, we have a very committed work force there. Will
Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend knows that discussions are taking place with the private sector on ship support and that those discussions also involve public sector yards. Indeed, even the work that will be undertaken on the submarines will involve both private contractors and the existing work force. He is right to identify the enormous reservoir of skills at Faslane. Obviously, its work force will be playing a significant role--along with those at Devonport, mentioned in a previous intervention--in getting the submarines operational again as soon as possible.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Given the immense cost of the infrastructure that is needed to maintain a nuclear fleet because of the safety implications, does the Minister think that it is time to reconsider the option of a new generation of diesel boats rather than the proposed Astute class? Will he re-examine the option for diesel-powered submarines, which are cheaper and quieter than nuclear submarines? They have been given increased capability through air-independent propulsion, are ideally suited for coastal warfare, are easier to repair and potentially have a much better export market. Is it not time to go back to basics? Surely we should not go back to Upholder, but consider the future generation of nuclear boats.
Mr. Spellar: That is an interesting proposition and one that I do not recall spokesmen on either Front Bench raising during consideration of our submarine capability under the strategic defence review. Essentially, we and a few other countries have a blue-water international capability. We would not be able to achieve that with diesel submarines, which would also not be appropriate to maintain the nuclear deterrent--unless the right hon. Gentleman is proposing that we should review that policy too.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend may know that I have sailed on one of these boats--with the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), the Opposition Whip--and I was particularly impressed by the high level of consideration for safety. In trying to help public understanding of the issue, will my hon. Friend stress that this was a coolant leak, not a radiation leak, and that the processes he described in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) are the normal processes engaged in when cooling down a reactor prior to such work?
Mr. Spellar: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the professionalism of our submarine fleet. I also echo his call to put the problem into perspective. Yes, it was a leak, but it was an extremely minor leak of coolant that was probably less radioactive than the surrounding Mediterranean. However, we have to be mindful of the need to maintain very high safety standards. That is why we inspected Tireless and that is why, when it appeared that there was a possibility of a generic fault, we undertook further investigations. It is also why we are looking at the whole fleet. I am sure that the House and
Are there not some internal inconsistencies in what the Minister is telling the House? Is he saying that all 12 of the submarines are unsafe and unseaworthy? If so, why did it take from May until October to take them out of service? If so, how can he tell the House that there was no question of crew safety being an issue? Why do Ministers appear to have taken what would seem to have been an operational decision?
Once we started to inspect the fault and examine it more closely, what we originally thought was a fairly small crack turned out to be larger and, quite frankly, the external investigation techniques would not have enabled us to ascertain that. Our experts then assessed that it was possibly a design/manufacture fault and could therefore have been generic across the fleet. That is why we undertook the further investigation.
As I said before, we are looking at the faults, but they are at an earlier stage in some of the other vessels. At the same time, however--as I pointed out in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller)--we are talking about a very minor leak on the vessel. That does not mean that we did not take it seriously, but it also does not mean that there was any risk either to the crew or indeed to the general public. However, we did take the necessary prudent steps and will continue to take them. There is no inconsistency in those statements.
I welcome the information that the Minister gave the House that we are due to have a defence debate--rightly so. I see that the Leader of the House is in her place. Will the Minister have a word with my right hon. Friend about holding defence debates a wee bit earlier in the week, in prime time, when more Members are able to be in the Chamber to debate such important issues? All too often, such debates are held at the fag-end of the week and not in prime time.
Will the Minister give us a status position for the Tireless submarine in Gibraltar? That is where we heard that the fault was first detected. Could we be told about the status of the repair to the Tireless?
What is the status of repairs to the diplomatic relationships with the Gibraltar Government? Some diplomatic mistakes were certainly made by either the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office or by both.
We have been working with the Government of Gibraltar. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Chief Minister, having taken advice from an independent group of nuclear experts, indicated that the Government would not oppose the repair of Tireless. Of course, we have kept them informed of subsequent developments, and will continue to do so.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I accept that the Government experienced difficulties that were not of their own making in their dealings with Gibraltar over HMS Tireless but, given that there was known to be a problem with the vessel that prevented it from being inspected properly for five months, what steps did the Government take to look at other submarines of the same class, which we could have inspected during that long time to see whether there was a generic fault? What steps were taken?
Mr. Spellar: I believe that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the situation. Initially, it was thought that there was a fault within Tireless. It was only on subsequent examination--not external examination but after having opened up the system--that it appeared that it was a different fault from that originally perceived, and that, therefore, because of its nature, there was the possibility that it was a design/manufacture fault, which was more likely to be a fault across the fleet, rather than an accident. As a result of that information, it was appropriate to conduct inspections, starting with stripped vessels that were already in refit or repair, to see whether they also suffered from that fault. I believe that that is a fairly straightforward, and fairly common, engineering procedure.
Mr. Spellar: I am tempted to reply to my hon. Friend in the way that I had to reply to his fellow countryman, Mr. James Naughtie, on Saturday and to say that, not being an engineer, I really need to wait on the engineers' report to have a better idea of the nature and cause of the fault and, of course, the suggested recovery programme.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): May I congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, not only on the scale of your victory yesterday, but on your positive endorsement by a clear majority of the House? I express my gratitude for this early opportunity to catch your eye.
The Minister will now be aware of the importance of this weapons system, given the problems with it. Can he say anything about the capacity for emergency deployment while the repairs are taking place? Can he say anything about the policy, announced in the strategic defence review, to reduce the fleet from 12 to 10 boats in the next few years, and whether that will be put on hold for this period or reviewed altogether?