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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): My hon. Friend is making a very thoughtful speech. In relation to what he said about a review of naval capabilities, does he envisage that we should take a careful look at the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, not only because an enormous
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shipbuilding programme is coming up—sadly, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) is not in his place so he cannot listen to this—but because other navies have successfully used merchantmen for refuelling duties at sea, including the United States navy. In that way, the Royal Navy could get more bang for its buck out of its auxiliary services.

Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right; there is a huge procurement pending, and if we were to take the sort of strategic look at the Navy that I describe, all things should be counted in the equation. At present, our Navy still maintains significant anti-submarine warfare capabilities, for example. The submarine threats that we now face are minimal, and we have to ask ourselves whether that needs to be as great a priority as it has been. We still have 20 frigates and 12 Merlin anti-submarine helicopters. As we have moved more towards land and air-based conflict, one wonders whether that is the right combination of capabilities to keep.

As we consider the shape of the Navy in the 21st century, we note the two new aircraft carriers, about which many hon. Members have spoken today. We must ask by what means exactly we will be able to defend those when they come into active service. The three small carriers that we have currently have played a crucial role and the Government have again not been able to say when we can expect any news about the two full-scale carriers that are so badly needed, and were committed to coming into service in 2012 and 2015. I hope that the Government will come to the House soon and tell us when there will be some progress on that. I hope that they will take on board the wise words of the Select Committee on Defence and ensure that the responsibilities for the various stages and elements of the programme are clearly defined and allocated. We need a clear idea, available publicly, of when the carriers and the joint strike fighters, or whatever else will fly off them, will come into service.

As the Government point out in their amendment to the motion, the new Type 45 destroyers and the new Astute class submarines are on their way shortly. However, as the Defence Committee also points out, the Defence Procurement Agency faces increasing costs for both those programmes. What steps do the Government think they can take to contain the cost of those programmes? What do they believe the impact of those costs running higher and higher will be on their naval expenditure?

Naval capability is completely redundant without the men and women of the Royal Navy—operational, administrative and technical. The future of the Navy is reliant on a strong, highly skilled, well-maintained and positive work force. There are issues of morale, as other Members have said. In their amendment, the Government congratulate themselves on their

However, as the National Audit Office report of 2005-06 highlights, there is a

In effect that is a “black hole” that will have repercussions for as much as another 20 years, in addition to the reductions in Royal Navy manpower that will take place by April 2008, which was also commented upon by the
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Defence Committee. There is a distinct and severe lack in specialist trades, which must be addressed as a matter of urgency. With the development of new Astute class submarines and proposals to renew Vanguard, it is alarming that there are key pinch points affecting nuclear watchkeepers.

Additionally, it is reported that the Marines are undermanned according to requirements for the past 10 years, despite this “responsible stewardship”. I welcome the idea of a 7 per cent. increase in the requirement for Marines; retention will be just as important as recruitment because they are currently doing excellent work for us in Afghanistan, for example. Those manning shortfalls will be difficult to recover, and I hope that the Government will address the matter head on. I would welcome news from them on when the Armed Forces Pay Review Body report can be expected. It is rather late, and its findings will be absolutely vital to sustaining morale.

In conclusion, the Navy is approaching a crucial decision point. One might not want to talk about a crossroads in the naval context, but some vital decisions are clearly pending. Today’s debate has been a useful start to addressing such issues, but there is clearly more to debate, and I look forward to the Government returning to the House with more detailed proposals soon.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, but in view of the limited time available for the debate, Members may wish to reduce their contributions even further.

6.18 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I shall try to curtail my remarks as far as possible.

I am one of the Members on the Government side of the House who still remembers what it was like to be on the Opposition side. I hope that that will remain a memory for even longer. It is always difficult for the Opposition to decide what to choose to debate on an Opposition day. They know that there is a risk that if they try to take on something that is very topical politically in order to undermine what the Government are doing, it can bounce back on to them. The second motive for choosing a subject for debate is to open up an issue so that the House can discuss something that it would not otherwise discuss. I have to say to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who has left the Chamber, that if the motive were the first one—to try and catch the Government to make a political point—the Opposition have chosen very dangerous territory. On the motion before us, they have been very specific about the points where they believe that the Government have slipped up. The corollary is that the Opposition would not have slipped up and that they would have implemented the full details of the strategic defence review, as outlined in the document.

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If the Opposition take that view, they cannot avoid the question that I put to the hon. Member for Woodspring. If, given the changing situation in the world and changing defence needs as we evolve from our position in 1998—as was mentioned from the Government Front Bench earlier—the Opposition are saying that those commitments should still be implemented, they have to say where the money is coming from. Is it coming from another part of the defence budget and, if so, let us find out where, so that constituency Members will be aware of it. If that is not the position and if other commitments stand as well as these, notwithstanding the evolving situation, the only presumption is that the expenditure has to come from other public sector areas. If that is the case, the country should know where the Conservatives say that other cuts in social services, health, education or whatever will fall, or are we to have increased taxation or greater public borrowing in order to pay for it?

That is the first pathway that the Opposition could choose. I rather hope that they are not going down that pathway and that they are raising this subject in order to stimulate a wider debate. If it is the second motive—stimulating debate—I could not agree with them more. It is courageous to stimulate a debate on such a difficult area, in view of all the dilemmas that the Government have to face. If that is the Opposition’s motive, I congratulate them.

The Opposition will have to recognise what the Government recognise—that there are no straightforward solutions. It is not a matter of having every aeroplane, every missile, every ship, higher wages, better guns, better equipment and so forth. That is not how the defence budget works: choices have to be made; there have to be priorities. In the case of the health service, it is much easier to predict what the demands will be next year or in three or five years’ time, though technological changes affect it dramatically. It is so much more difficult to predict what will be needed in defence in order to protect our country, because we cannot see over the horizon. We do not know what is around the corner. We can make some intelligent guesses—the Government have made some good ones in the implementation of the strategic defence review—but we do not know the nature of the enemy. We do not know whether it is symmetric or asymmetric. If it is symmetric, we do not know whether someone else will fulfil the role that the Soviet Union played in the past or whether there will be dangers from China, India, a new Russia or wherever. We do not know the answer. We do not know whether there is going to be a new conflagration of asymmetric enemies, but we suspect that there might well be.

The difficulty with defence procurement is that we cannot take a decision today, go to Tesco tomorrow and have it in by Wednesday. It takes many years of planning and assessment of technological efficiency or the efficacy of any weaponry that is purchased. It often takes many years of build and testing before it becomes operational. Therefore a degree of intelligent guesswork about the future is always necessary. If the Opposition are recognising that fact in stimulating this debate, I think that they are doing Parliament and the British people a service. The British people closely watch what happens with our defence budgets and our foreign policies.

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I have only a couple of minutes left, and I am sorry to say that I shall have to take the full time available. There are some things that we do know. We know that we need an expeditionary force—I do not believe that anyone would disagree with that—and we know that we need fighting ground troops in order to carry out the tasks necessary for our commitment to NATO. We know about the need for airlift following expeditionary forces and for sealift as well. What we do not know is answers to questions about the enemy, the timing, the symmetric or the asymmetric.

I want to make the point that we do not know about technological developments either. That is why I am in favour of a Trident replacement. I think that we need an ultimate deterrent and that the Navy plays a crucial role in that. We do not know tomorrow’s enemy and we do not know the mass destructive technology of tomorrow. Because of that, we have to keep the best defence that we can against anyone posing a potential threat to us or our friends. I think that that argument, particularly the crucial contribution of the Navy, has to be made more forcefully in defence.

It seems that I do not need my full eight minutes after all, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that we need a balance and that the Government are striking it. Speaking as a north-east MP, I want to see early implementation of the carriers as part of the balance, because there is a potential for work in our area in pursuit of that very important goal of sealift.

I forgot one important point. It is not just a matter of airlift and sealift, but of the protection of airlift and sealift. That has a crucial part to play as well. I commend the Opposition on—hopefully—raising this motion to stimulate debate. I believe that the Government have responded seriously to the points that have been made. We look forward to hearing their further responses on issues such as the carriers and the defence aircraft necessary to protect them.

6.26 pm

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I respect the record of interest and involvement in this area on the part of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), but he could not deny, on reflection, that there is a problem, in that the strategic defence review of 1998 predicated 32 surface ships in relation to two large aircraft carriers, but those are not now expected to be part of the overall plan.

We are a trading nation; we export more than a third of our gross domestic product—far more than any other industrialised nation. We have our Commonwealth links, which involve us in the West Indies and elsewhere, and we also have an interest in the middle east. We have old friendships such as that with Brunei, which means that we have a keen interest in safety in the South China sea, the Malacca straits and other areas. We cannot get out of that involvement: those areas are important to us, and the Royal Navy is an important part of our overall defence posture.

The word “deterrence” relates not just to nuclear deterrence but to the availability of surface ships and the visibility of the Royal Navy throughout the world, where appropriate. That is why surface ships and their numbers are so very important. What nobody has mentioned so far in the debate is that it has been a
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given over the decades that of all surface ships at any one time, about one third will be in work-up, about one third in refit and only about one third available for deployment. That is not me complaining about the availability of ships; I am simply recognising a fact. One could take any number of surface destroyers and frigates and divide it by three, and that would be the number of ships available. If 32 ships are available, 10 might be available for immediate deployment; 25 might mean about eight; and if the numbers reduce to about 19, seven or even six destroyers and frigates might be available for deployment at any one time.

We then need to add to that equation the fact that we are theoretically—and, I hope, in practice—going to purchase two extremely large aircraft carriers. Given that steel is cheap and air is free, why not have very large aircraft carriers? They will be the largest ships ever to have served in the Royal Navy, but when they deploy as part of a task group, they will require surface ships to back them up. The number of such ships required depends on where the aircraft carriers are deployed. If they are deployed very close to the UK or in the Mediterranean, the number of surface ships deployed with them might be two or three. If they are deployed further away—on far eastern station, for instance—they would need something like five surface ships accompanying them, which is a very high proportion of the available ships; it would take up most of them. We need to ask what else would then be available for deployment in the south Atlantic, the West Indies, the Mediterranean and the far east, and for good will-visits? The answer, really, is none. I put it to the Government that their procurement programme is getting out of kilter.

I also question the size of the aircraft carriers. It is of course an attractive concept to have very large aircraft carriers, as they are flexible in the type of aircraft that can be deployed from them, but if a ship is to be deployed with joint strike fighters of the short take-off and vertical landing—STOVL—variety, why would such large ships be necessary? Given the shortage of surface ships and the nature of the aircraft that are intended to be deployed from the aircraft carriers, it seems that we are heading into uncharted waters and, perhaps, an unbalanced procurement programme.

In the light of the shortage of money available for surface ships—and the reduction in the number of surface ships—admirals and those advising them will inevitably look at the shore establishments. Rosyth has its own reasons for being protected, but let us consider Faslane, Plymouth and Portsmouth. Sixty per cent. of all ships are based in Portsmouth, and much of the training takes place in the Portsmouth and Gosport area. The heart of the Royal Navy is in south Hampshire.

If many of those ships were removed from Portsmouth, sailors would be taken away from south Hampshire, where most of them have made their homes. If, in addition, engineering and other training were moved from the south Hampshire area to St. Athan, as is planned after 2011, the Government would be tearing the heart out of the Royal Navy. They would not only weaken the deployability of the ships, but put domestic pressure on sailors who are based in south Hampshire, near where their ships and training are currently based. In this difficult world, in which
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sailors are frequently parted from their families for long periods, the least that the Government can do is to try to diminish those periods of separation.

I submit that the worst step that the Government could take would be to switch training to south Wales, resulting in sailors spending much of their time away from home, and to switch their ships away from Portsmouth, resulting in their having to make long journeys back to their homes in south Hampshire when their ships were based in this country. Some 35,000 jobs in the Portsmouth area are defence related, comprising 13,300 service jobs and 21,600 civilian jobs. Quite apart from that, I submit that the course that the Government are taking on procurement and on changes in defence training will tear the heart out of the Royal Navy, and I urge them to think again about these issues.

6.32 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am conscious of the limited time available, so I shall concentrate on the naval base review, which has great significance for my constituency. Last year, Labour’s defence budget reached £30 billion for the first time ever. That is a vast amount of money, and if we are asking the British taxpayer for such a sum, it is important that we spend it wisely. More importantly, servicemen and women are risking their lives on operations, so it is vital that maximum resources should be spent on the front line.

That means that we cannot do things in the way that we have always done them; we have to change. Change brings uncertainty, not least in Portsmouth, and the uncertainty that has faced us since the naval base review has been overwhelming. There are about 10 options in the review, two of which have had the unfortunate effect of pitting one naval base against another. I should like to put it on the record that, in Portsmouth, we are making our case based on our own competences. I believe that there are strategic and financial cases for all three bases to stay open. Although I regret the uncertainty, the review has enabled us in Portsmouth to demonstrate how we are evolving to meet today’s and future naval requirements in a cost-effective way.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) has just spoken about the number of jobs that are dependent on the Portsmouth naval base area. Ten per cent. of the residents of Portsmouth are in what are known as defence-dependent jobs; 15 per cent. of the residents of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are in such jobs, as are 8 per cent. of the residents of Fareham. The naval base generates an income of £680 million for the local economy, and a recent report by Portsmouth university estimated that if the base closed there would be a loss of £350 million in the sub-regional economy. Although that is important, I would be the last person to say that we should make local economics the basis of our defence expenditure decisions. However, we must maintain our skills base in different geographical locations, in order properly to support our front-line forces and protect our national interest and national security.

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That is why the defence industrial strategy that was published last year looked to industry to adopt a partnership approach with the Ministry of Defence rather than the traditional contractor-supplier approach. In Portsmouth, we have taken that into account and embraced it wholeheartedly. We have a unique partnership with industry in Portsmouth, principally with VT Shipbuilding and BAE Systems. We provide a one-stop shop for shipbuilding and ship support—from design, build and launch through upgrade to eventual disposal—all on one site.

There are overwhelming financial and militarily strategic reasons for keeping Portsmouth naval base open. Our naval base is not just about berthing ships; there are myriad ancillary services in and around it. The cost of moving all those services alone would be prohibitive, but if we also take into account our industrial partnerships, the case for keeping Portsmouth open becomes overwhelming.

Our industrial base includes all the major players in the defence industry, and many of the other smaller suppliers in the defence sector. Having that huge range of naval, MOD and industrial organisations co-located in one place means that the MOD has all its key strategic capabilities together. Our unique culture of partnering and MOD-industry collaboration is already driving down costs within the Ministry: £50 million-worth of savings have already been delivered, and another £30 million have been identified.

Last December, BAE Systems and VT Shipbuilding started discussions with a view to forming a single joint-venture company. That would place all the UK’s industrial shipbuilding and support expertise in one organisation, which would result in the potential for substantial cost reductions for the MOD. Linked with that proposal is the establishment of Portsmouth as a centre of excellence. If the naval base were to close and the ships were to move away, the whole venture would be in jeopardy. All the synergies that would be achieved by having a centre of excellence in one place would be fragmented, resulting in much higher costs to the taxpayer. My fear is that that could prevent us from giving the Navy the resources that it needs to be a global force in the future.

The case for keeping Portsmouth naval base open is not only financial. There is also a militarily strategic case for doing so, not least because two studies have suggested that it is the only place to base-port the aircraft carriers. We have made a significant investment—£40 million—on new jetties. The only other possible place for the aircraft carriers to go is Faslane, but it does not have the infrastructure to support them: its jetties are only 15 m long. So that investment would have to be duplicated in order to accommodate the carriers there. There must also be a question mark over whether we would want to put all our major strategic naval assets in one place.

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