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Defence (Protection Of Offshore Interests)

Volume 886: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1975

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With permission, I will make a statement on the protection of our offshore interests.

For many years the Armed Services, and principally the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, have played an important part in the peace-time protection of our offshore interests both in the course of their normal duties and in support of the civil authorities concerned. But in addition to these traditional tasks, such as fishery protection and the safety of shipping, important new ones have recently arisen. These include the prevention and control of pollution and the protection of the growing number of offshore oil and gas installations from accidental or malicious damage. The Government have been considering how these tasks may best be carried out.

In the past, the resources provided primarily for external defence have been adequate, but, with the increasing scale and importance of our offshore interests, new kinds of ships and aircraft will be required. In particular, there is a need for a class of vessel of a size intermediate between the small mine counter-measures vessel at present used for fishery protection in relatively sheltered coastal waters and the frigate, which is unnecessarily large and sophisticated for much of this work. Five new vessels will, therefore, be built similar to the offshore fishery protection vessels operated by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, which will continue to be available. In addition, up to four aircraft will be provided to carry out surveillance of offshore waters and to operate in conjunction with ships. These will be existing aircraft which may need some modification for this particular task.

The new vessels are expected to begin to enter service in 1977 and the aircraft at about the same time. Meanwhile as an immediate measure of protection for our offshore interests, the Royal Navy will this spring take on loan from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland the fishery protection vessel "Jura". She will be lightly armed, provided with improved communications and manned by Royal Navy personnel as a warship. As well as carrying out fishery protection work in Scottish waters, she will be available to provide a naval presence in the vicinity of our offshore installations and will provide a valuable experience in meeting this new task. In addition, the naval ocean-going tug "Reward" will be recommissioned as a Royal Navy ship this summer and equipped in a manner similar to the "Jura" for duties in the North Sea. Other naval vessels and Service aircraft will continue to pass through the area, and routine air patrols by the RAF over the offshore installations will start soon.

It is not, however, the intention that the Armed Forces should undertake specialist tasks such as fire fighting or that they should normally perform work which can equally well be done commercially.

The Government also intend to consult closely with neighbouring countries, and particularly our NATO allies bordering the North Sea, to explore ways of providing increased common support.

Is the Minister aware that there is nothing in his statement that will make the country feel that our most vital economic interests are being particularly well protected?

First, what consideration has been given, and what action has been taken, to meet what must be the most likely risk to the oil installations; namely, acts of terrorism?

Secondly, the Minister said that routine air patrols by the RAF over the offshore installations would start soon. Is he implying, therefore, that there have not been RAF patrols over the installations for the past 12 months, particularly since Soviet spy ships have been active in the area?

Thirdly, what consideration has been given to better co-ordination between the police authorities and military authorities with regard to these activities?

Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that over the next two years, until 1977, the only additional strength given to this vital task is one converted Ministry of Agriculture ship and a tug? If that is so, this will get the title of "Dad's Navy".

I am very surprised at the grudging and ill-judged comments of the right hon. Gentleman. I think that Members on both sides of the House recognise that there is a new and difficult task and that we have to find the best means of meeting it. We shall certainly learn by experience, and in the interim period the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will have valuable experience upon which they will be able to draw later. But inevitably we are feeling our way, and, in our judgment, what we are proposing is worthy of a warmer reception than that which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to give it.

Let me now reply to the right hon. Gentleman's three questions. I do not agree that the most likely risk from which installations suffer is that of terrorism, though it is indeed a risk. We have it very much in mind, though the right hon. Gentleman would be unusually foolish if he were to ask me to spell out the details of how we expect to meet it.

Secondly, it is perfectly true that from time to time RAF patrols have flown over existing installations. But we are proposing, in the interim period before the newly-equipped aircraft are available, that it should become a more regular occurrence. If circumstances justify it, we shall seek to go further. But we are satisfied, as far as anyone can be satisfied, that this is a useful interim measure, and I should deceive the House if I attempted to claim that it was anything other than that.

Thirdly, on the question of co-ordination, the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is an important dividing line between military responsibilities which are for installations at sea and police responsibilities which continue for the installations on land. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have given full consideration to this matter and we hope that we have found a solution which will bring the right results.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will cause some anxiety in Scotland? Does he really think that this is a new situation? It has been foreseen for at least two years. There appears to be no denial that patrol vessels are being ordered. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect that all sorts of practical measures in connection with oil have been taken too late and possibly are inadequate?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only are the fishery protection services in Scotland already severely strained but that there is a strong demand for a 50-mile limit and that we shall need more, not fewer, protection vessels? Removal of the "Jura" may be very serious indeed. Will the hon. Gentleman consider chartering more ocean-going tugs or possibly acquiring more aircraft in the interim period chiefly for fishery protection services?

The right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that this is not a new situation. He will concede that in my statement I did not imply that it was. It is, however, a new environment in which the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have to work, and it is important that they have equipment which is related to the job. It would be only too easy, for example, whatever the expense, to claim that a frigate could do the job. In our estimation, that is not the right sort of vessel for the purpose, and, therefore, new vessels have to be designed and built. However, if it is demonstrated that our interim arrangements are inadequate, I should not exclude the sort of proposal which the right hon. Gentleman has made. But in the short run we shall not reduce the number of vessels available for fishery protection off Scotland. The "Jura" will be able to combine her new rôle with her previous one, but, more important, as the right hon. Gentleman may know, a further vessel will be available very shortly. Therefore, the total number of ships available for this task will not be reduced.

I add my welcome to what my hon. Friend has said today, and certainly the people working in the North Sea will welcome any separate force which increases security and safety in the North Sea. But is not the logic of the argument that there are so many departments with different responsibilities that we should use this force as a means of establishing a marine authority? I wonder whether my hon. Friend is discussing this possibility with other departments and considering setting up a separate budget for an air-sea rescue system rather than dealing with the matter under the heading of defence.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous and discerning remarks. I know how much he has been concerned with all these issues in recent weeks, including the one he mentioned latterly. We have under discussion his suggestion about a marine authority, and it is right that there should be no bureaucratic obstacle to the effective performance of the duties I have described today and the more traditional duties which must continue, including air-sea rescue. We are feeling our way. The effect of my statement, which represents the Government's considered view, is that there will be close co-ordination in future, but the day-to-day responsibility will be placed firmly on those who carry out the operations.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a place should be found for the auxiliary forces as back-up to any work being done in this connection?

Is my hon. Friend aware that as an interim statement his remarks will be welcome, but, far from bringing in auxiliary forces on an ad hoc basis, is there not an overwhelming case, on defence and environmental grounds, for ensuring that the tremendous proliferation of structures in the North Sea is properly policed in all senses of that word?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He has mentioned environmental grounds. We recognise the danger from pollution from any of these installaations as a result of an accident. We shall continue together to try to find the best solution, although when the new vessels are in operation it will be a major step forward.

Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be close co-operation between fishery protection services and the new naval force so that we may know how many foreign vessels are fishing in the area between the 12-mile limit and the proposed 200-mile limit? The fishing industry of Scotland will welcome the increased policing force which will be available in 1977, but in the meantime it will be concerned about the withdrawal of the "Jura" from fishery protection duties. Without the "Jura" there may well be, as there have been in the past 12 months, instances when no vessel is available to put to sea at short notice.

The hon. Gentleman need not be anxious about his second point, because a new vessel will be coming into commission very shortly and the total effect will not be a diminution in the number of vessels available for fishery protection off Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of co-operation. It has been very close indeed, and I am sure that it will continue in that way.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) that it is deplorable if the Royal Navy is so reduced that it must commission clapped-out stop-gaps for the important two years before the new ships become available.

Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the new ships will be purpose-built ships, with speed and flexibility and good communications and, very important, helicopter platforms, and, most important of all, good living conditions for their crews in the terrible waters in which they will operate? Does he realise that we import so much technology for offshore drilling that it would be nice for a change if we could use British genius to develop and design our own ships and export to parts of the world where there will be oil drilling? Can he explain why it is not visualized—

Order. I must ask hon. Members to confine themselves to one or, at most, two supplementary questions.

In conclusion, does the hon. Gentleman understand that the offshore tapestry of his Ministry should be woven in bright colours and not in faded patches?

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his closing poetry. I do not think he is being fair to those who will sail in them when he describes the vessels as clapped-out stopgaps. They are not that, and I invite him to see them at a convenient time so that he can reassure himself on that account. The new vessels he has mentioned will be specially designed. I am sure that they will have the best available accommodation, given the difficulty of the task. It will be possible to land equipment on them from helicopters, though they will not carry helicopters—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This matter has been very thoroughly discussed. In our view, the vessels meet the need, and I am sure that their success will be demonstrated in such a way as to achieve a considerable export potential.

The Minister is to be congratulated on his statement, which will be welcomed by the people who earn their livelihoods on offshore installations. There is some anxiety that we should know what are the comprehensive servicing arrangements for the protection of the installations. Will my hon. Friend consult his right hon. Friends in the Departments concerned with a view to defining these comprehensive services, and will a statement be made in the House at an early stage? Will my hon. Friend also take up the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about the need for one department to co-ordinate all the services?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. We shall continue to keep the House fully informed on these difficult and important matters in the way my hon. Friend suggests.

I do not in any way wish to encourage complacency, but will the Minister confirm that it is important that the message should go out from the House that there are in existence methods for the pursuit and arrest of vessels which interfere with our right in the North Sea? Will he confirm that recently the Navy was called into hot pursuit and was able to make an arrest? In carrying out the arrangements he has announced, will be consider the greater use of helicopter patrols on irregular, unscheduled and varied patterns, with great publicity being given to the carrying out of these patrols, so that anyone who may be thinking of interfering will realise the great likelihood of detection?

The hon. Gentleman is right to put into perspective not only the statement but the somewhat alarmist remarks which have been made this afternoon. We are anxious to find the best methods of providing a necessary deterrent, which is what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. I would not exclude any method which experience shows to be relevant, but it is easy to jump to conclusions that one method is necessarily superior to another. We have had elaborate discussions and have taken the best possible advice. We have not said that cost is an obstacle. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that nothing in the defence review has affected our determination to do the best possible job in this area.

Is not some tribute due to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, who organised a seminar last summer, and to Professor John Ericson and Professor Alan Thompson, of Edinburgh University, who have given so much thought to this subject? Will anything be done about the vital deep-ocean survey and recovery vessel designed by Alverstoke and other naval establishments? Could not at least part of the expense go on the Department of Energy account and not on the Department of Defence account?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct in saying that credit for these arrangements rests with a number of people, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, to whom I am happy to give credit. I cannot today give my hon. Friend a reply to his question on deep-ocean recovery but I shall make inquiries and write to him. In reply to his second question, we shall continue to look at these matters, and I am sure that progress will be made.

I welcome the Minister's statement, but I regret his use of the word "alarmist". Surely what is required is a comprehensive system of defence for this, our greatest natural asset. Such a comprehensive system should consist of fast patrol boats, continuous helicopter patrols and probably also midget submarines. Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to the manufacture and supply of midget submarines to help in the protection of offshore installations?

Not in the last few months, Sir. The hon. Gentleman, whose concern I totally appreciate, may be assuming that the defence of these installations can be carried out best by more sophisticated methods than are actually required. There are some tasks which, although important, lend themselves to more simple and conventional arrangements. We shall continue to take advice and we shall listen to what the hon. Gentleman and the House say. As I mentioned earlier, and as I should have said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), the problem of the cost, wherever it may fall, will not be a major obstacle.