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Fishery Protection Vessels

Volume 973: debated on Thursday 8 November 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Brooke.]

10.41 pm

I come, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from a city where fishing is of very great importance—indeed, this is true of the South-West generally—and it is of the greatest importance to fishermen and to our fishing industry that we have good protection from offshore patrol vessels.

I believe it is true to say that nearly a million tons of fish was caught in 1978 and that the value was around £250 million. That perhaps gives some background to the importance of what I wish to discuss tonight, and that is the provision of new offshore fishery protection vessels. There are three points in particular that I should like to raise and that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to answer.

The first is the timing of decision on a new design for a fishery protection vessel to replace the Ton class, which is now rapidly ageing. A decision is long overdue and is becoming truly urgent. I hope that the Minister will be able tonight to give some indication of the time scale for a decision on putting boats out to sea.

My second point concerns the general nature of the vessels which are to be brought into service. At the moment, there is a two-tier system in operation, with the small Ton class going out only to 12 miles and the larger, more modern, Island class going out to 200 miles. I urge upon the Minister the value of having vessels which can all go out as far as 200 miles. This seems to me to give far greater flexibility than having one group which can go out fairly far and another which cannot. I hope that this point will be taken into consideration.

My third point concerns the general capability of the vessel. I recognise, of course, that if it is asked to go out to 200 miles, the vessel needs to be of considerable operational capability.

The "Osprey" has been widely canvassed as a suitable replacement. I hope that my hon. Friend will set out his views. No doubt he will have seen or heard about the BBC documentary programme featuring the "Osprey" that was broadcast on 17 October. The impression given by the programme was that the Royal Navy collectively was a set of stiff-necked fools who could not see a bargain when it was staring them in the face. I do not subscribe to that view, but the programme raised a number of questions that my hon. Friend should be asked to answer.

I shall make several suggestions concerning what should be required of new offshore vessels. First, I believe that they should have a good speed to cope with modern trawlers and other fishing vessels that are extremely sophisticated and can move at speed. We would not send the police in three-wheeled invalid cars when the get-away vehicles are Jaguars. I suggest that the same must apply to patrol vessels.

Patrol vessels have to have a boarding capacity to enable them to check foreign vessels to ascertain whether anything is wrong. It is of the utmost importance that the capacity should be well developed. That is a feature that should be borne well in mind.

The vessels must be tough if they are to venture into the North Sea and the North-East Atlantic, where we all know that weather conditions can be appalling. There have been several tragedies in those areas in the past few weeks. The vessels must be able to withstand severe weather conditions. They need to be able to withstand the possibility of accidental collision. If they are to try to catch vessels that are not where they should be or are doing something wrong, there must be a greater risk of collision, accidental or deliberate.

If the vessels are to be kept at sea for 10 days or longer, htey will need to be comfortable for the crews, who may be operating in difficult weather and other difficult conditions. I believe that the Royal Navy describes that capacity as seakindliness. That is an important feature. All of us who have suffered from being in small boats or in uncomfortable boats while at sea will know how much it matters. Even seasoned sailors need to live in a reasonable degree of comfort.

The BBC television programme made much of the capacity of the "Osprey" to have a helicopter landing on its deck. We were shown a small helicopter landing when weather conditions made the sea like a mill-pond. That was hardly a good illustration of the capacity of the "Osprey". I have lived by the sea for most of my life, and the times when it looks like a mill-pond are few in the course of a year.

It is far more likely that if a helicopter is to land it will be in relatively poor conditions, if not downright appalling. I ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks that that capacity is of importance to fishery protection vessels. If he thinks that it is, I suggest that the "Osprey" is not the vessel to be able to deal with it.

Those are all questions that I cannot answer myself, but they are of the greatest importance. I trust that my hon. Friend will answer them tonight and end the prolonged period of uncertainty about this matter.

10.49 pm

I welcome the debate tonight and should like to follow the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) with two points. First, the poacher has to be caught, and a vessel will be needed that can make 16 knots. Many of our trawlers can reach that speed.

The hon. Lady mentioned the BBC programme concerning a new type of vessel, the "Osprey", which Denmark has picked up. The old jibe about England is that we invent something good but do not carry it through and someone else reaps the benefit of our technological knowledge. However, is the "Osprey" as good as all that? How does it stand up in tough weather? The hon. Lady mentioned force 8 or 10 gales, and our fishing vessels can catch fish in a force 8 gale in the Arctic.

Speed and toughness are both important. The Minister will have had his experts check the data. I have listened to fishermen in my constituency discussing how good or how bad these vessels are.

I emphasise that we need a decent fishery protection flotilla. We need many more boats and faster and tougher boats. The magic word today in fishing is "conservation". There is no point in conserving our stocks of fish for our men to catch from Cornwall or Ullapool and Mallaig in Scotland if other fishermen can come in with impunity, whether they are the French from the EEC or Communist boats from Archangel or Murmansk. I do not care where they come from. They do not come from here. If we are discussing 200-mile limits, I say to the Minister that they can sneak in within a 12-mile limit, pick up the fish and get away.

I welcome the hon. Lady's contribution and I shall listen with keen attention to the Minister's reply.

10.52 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) for giving me the opportunity to speak about the Royal Navy's fishery protection task. I agree with her about its vital importance.

I also welcome the opportunity to answer some of the critcisms that were levelled not just at the fishery protection vessels proposed by the Royal Navy but at the Royal Navy itself. I wish to correct some of the factual errors contained in the BBC's recent programme about the "Osprey" in its series "The Risk Business".

Since the debate arises mainly from that programme, I must emphasise that the Royal Navy's attitude to "Osprey" relates solely to our assessment of her capability to undertake patrol operations in the offshore zone—that is, out to 200 miles. It was as an offshore patrol vessel that the BBC's programme considered her. That zone includes part of the North Sea and the Atlantic.

For reasons on which I shall expand later, the Royal Navy finds "Osprey" to be completely unsuitable for the offshore patrol duties that would be asked of her. That view is shared by the Fishery Departments, whose policy dictates the way in which the fishery protection task is carried out. There is, therefore, no question at all of her being used for these operations.

To put these remarks in context, I should like to say little about the task of fishery protection.

Just as the Fishery Departments are responsible for determining fishery protection policy, so similarly the Department of Energy dictates the policy for the protection of offshore oil installations, a task also undertaken by the Royal Navy fishery protection squadron. The job calls for long and arduous patrols at sea, and the North Sea, particularly in winter, boasts some of the most extreme weather and sea conditions in the world. It calls for tact and diplomacy in boarding and inspecting fishing vessels of those nations permitted to fish within our extended fishery limits and perhaps for even more tact and diplomacy in boarding those that should not be there. It calls for all the professionalism which is the tradition of the Senior Service that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) and I know and respect.

As my hon. Friend said, the fishery industry in the United Kingdom is important. In 1978, 957,000 tons of fish, including shellfish, were lander at a value of more than £250 million. In that year, there were some 16,000 full-time fishermen in the United Kingdom and probably three or four times their number in the related shore-based industry.

The fishery protection squadron consists of two elements, the offshore division and the coastal division. The offshore division is the area from 12 to 200 miles on median lines around our coasts, except for the English Channel and the Irish Sea. This area is patrolled by a force of Royal Navy Island class vessels except for the area west of Scotland, which is patrolled by vessels of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, which are civilian manned. In the Royal Navy's area of patrol are a large and growing number of oil installations for the safety of which the Royal Navy is also responsible. Aerial surveillance of the offshore areas is provided by Royal Air Force Nimrod long-range maritime patrol aircraft, which fly for 180 hours a month. This is sufficient to cover the entire area once every 10 days. But, in practice, they overfly more frequently the area where fishing usually occurs.

The coastal division consists of Ton class mine countermeasures vessels and HMS "Tenacity", a fast patrol boat. These ships patrol the 0 to 12 mile limit around our coasts and the whole of the English Channel and the Irish Sea. The coastal waters around Scotland are patrolled by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, which has its own inshore vessels. Royal Navy Sea Devons provide our aerial surveillance facility for the coastal division. They are tasked to fly about 65 hours a month.

These are the forces that we dedicate to fishery protection, but we can, and do, provide other resources such as additional RN ships and RN and RAF fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, as and when necessary. As my hon. Friend said, the Ton class vessels used to patrol the coastal zone are ageing warships and their primary role remains mine countermeasures. The new offshore patrol vessel will be procured to replace the ageing Tons. I should like to make clear that it will not replace the Island class vessels, as the BBC programme implied. The criticisms levelled at the Islands when they came into service, which the hon. Member for Attercliffe will probably recall, have proved unfounded. They perform their tasks well and we have no plans to replace them except in the normal course of events.

As my hon. Friend properly said, it is purely to replace the Tons that we need a new vessel. We have already embarked upon a programme to replace them in their mine countermeasures role with vessels of the new design Hunt class. However, advancing technology has dictated an extremely sophisticated vessel to undertake this vital task, which will, of course, be expensive. Frankly, it would be to misemploy these highly sophisticated units to engage them on fishery protection tasks. Thus, the decision was taken to proceed with plans to procure a purpose-built vessel for fishery protection duties.

In defining our requirement for the new vessel, we have kept in close touch with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whose responsibility it is to advise the other Fishery Departments on what ships and aircraft are most suitable for their tasks. Although no final decision has yet been taken—I appreciate the urgency, as my hon. Friend stated it—I agree with my hon. Friend that it would be preferable to procure a vessel that could operate throughout the 200-mile limit rather than be restricted to the coastal zone, as the Tons must be. This would provide a much more flexible system.

We considered 18 different ship designs to meet our requirements. The hon. Member for Attercliffe will recall this because much took place while he was holding my office. We were looking for a ship with the ability to stay out of port for protracted periods without any deterioration in the efficiency of the crew due to fatigue caused by the ship's motion, to which reference has been made tonight. The ships would need safe and efficient systems for launching and recovering the boat used by the boarding party. Helicopter facilities were highly desirable and the Royal Navy wanted sufficient space to give the vessel a useful role in wartime, such as minesweeping or minelaying, although, of course, this was not a consideration which concerned the Fishery Departments.

It is here that I should like to return to the "Osprey" and answer some of my hon. Friend's questions. I have already said that we have not made a final decision about the new OPV—the offshore patrol vessel—but what is quite clear is that the "Osprey" would not meet our requirements for a vessel capable of operating throughout the 200-mile zone, as was suggested by the "Risk" programme. The design has been carefully evaluated in this context with a full assessment of all the documentary evidence supplied by her designers, together with evidence of first-hand experience gained by the team of Royal Navy, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food representatives who recently made two trips to sea in her.

The first trip was in calm waters off Harwich, and it was there that a small helicopter landed on board to demonstrate the claim that helicopter operations could be undertaken at sea. The second was during a two-day patrol off Denmark when officials had the opportunity to see her operating in the patrol role.

"Osprey" fell short of our requirements in the following way. First, as to her endurance, our requirement demands the capability of remaining at sea without refuelling for up to 21 days. Our information about "Osprey's" capacity and fuel consumption suggests that she is capable of remaining at sea unsupported for only about half that time. Secondly, "Osprey's" motion is very uncomfortable and tiring. In this context, the remark of the senior officer of the fishery protection squadron, Capain Hill-Norton, on the "Risk" programme, that she was the most uncomfortable vessel that he had experienced, is most significant. Frankly, it is not acceptable to put at risk the efficiency of the crew during extended patrol operations.

I might add that during that voyage the sea state never increased above 3 to 4—in other words, in layman's terms, there were no white horses.

:I have written to the hon. Gentleman about this matter. Does he agree that many of these statements are now being challenged by various people who think that there is a bias in the Admiralty against the "Osprey"?

Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There may be challenge, but I am going on not just a subjective judgment but quite a detailed report by groups of people whose job it was to assess clearly what was happening when they had their two or three days on "Osprey". If I continue, I think that the hon. Gentleman will not be entirely displeased with what I end with.

In all the roughest weathers, it is quite clear that in sea state 5, which is very rough, to mount boarding parties would be just impossible.

My hon. Friend mentioned boat-handling arrangements. I have already mentioned the importance of streamlined boat handling and the boat-handling arrangements in fishery protection. The boat must be launched quickly and safely. The arrangements in "Osprey" were unsatisfactory and dangerous in anything but calm weather. The boat is launched and recovered through a hole in the stern. The crew have to wear hard helmets and lie in the bottom to avoid being hit by the iron transom under which the boat must pass.

My hon. Friend mentioned helicopter operations. We expect helicopters to play an increasing role in offshore protection. This is obviously important. It is our view that, because of the excessive motion of the ship, the number of days per year on which even a small helicopter could be landed on "Osprey" in offshore waters would be very low—probably less than 10.

The speed of "Osprey" as built by the Danes, in its present role, is about 16 to 17 knots with a clean bottom. We are, frankly, looking for about 20 knots in the OPV that we shall procure.

The final comment I make about "Osprey" is on her construction. She is built to a commercial design and we believe that the standards of watertight integrity adopted are insufficient for a ship engaged in activities with a high risk of collision. This fact was mentioned by several hon. Members.

The Royal Navy requires its vessels to be subdivided into watertight compartments so that the vessel can be partially flooded without sinking. There is no such provision in "Osprey". This represents our opinion of "Osprey" as a potential offshore patrol vessel out to 200 miles.

Perhaps I should say that I am not suggesting that none of the features, undesirable from the Royal Navy's point of view, should not in time be improved, nor that the vessel would not be suitable for other less onerous roles. Of course, she has good points. For example, she is extremely manoeuvrable, as was demonstrated on the "Risk" programme. For a ship of her size she certainly packs in a lot of equipment. But the balance of her advantages and disadvantages makes her unsuitable as an OPV out to 200 miles. The "Risk" programme frankly got that wrong. In other tasks "Osprey's" balance of advantages and disadvantages will shape up differently. In fact "Osprey" is one of three designs selected as potential replacements for the Ton class vessels which currently patrol the waters around Hong Kong. Conditions are very different there.

None of the three vessels completely meets the Royal Navy's requirement, but for the small number of vessels involved it would not be a sensible use of our resources to design our own. So procurement will proceed on the basis of a design-and-build competition amongst United Kingdom shipyards. It will be up to "Osprey's" designers to arrange, with an appropriate shipyard, to tender on the basis of their design, if they wish to do so. The tender response will then be considered in competition with others.

Finally, I should say a word about our procurement procedures. We have been criticised for being a bureaucratic organisation, bound by the rule book and unwilling to consider anything new. Our history gives the lie to that. "Osprey's" designer said on television that he designed ships by "the seat of his pants" and rather implied that we should toss our rule books overboard and do likewise.

Of necessity, in a large organisation like the Ministry of Defence, procedures sometimes appear rather cumbersome. The choice of a particular ship design to carry out a naval task is not the result of the whim of a person or group of persons within the Ministry. It is the culmination of a process which involves the most detailed and careful consideration of the task that we have to undertake, as well as all the options available to meet this requirement and the implications of adopting each solution in operational, financial, industrial and other terms.

We first prepare a broad statement called a naval staff target which sets against the proposed task the range of possibilities worth pursuit. This provides the basis for a series of detailed studies which are designed to narrow down the various options open to us.

The next stage of the process is the preparation of a naval staff requirement. This sets out in precise detail the requirement and the way in which we believe it should be met. It exists first in draft form and it lays down parameters for the desired operating characteristics of the new vessel such as its endurance and its seakeeping capabilities, which are very important. These parameters cannot be defined in isolation. They are very much bound together.

We need to ensure that what is proposed is within the realms of what is possible, and there is an almost constant dialogue between designers, shipbuilders and financial experts to identify the construction possibilities. Both the naval staff target and naval staff requirement have generally to be approved by a committee which considers the project not just on behalf of the Royal Navy or the Navy Department but in relation to the defence needs of the country as a whole. It is considered not just "in house" within the Ministry of Defence but right across the board.

In the case of offshore protection, where the task is undertaken by the Royal Navy on behalf of the civil Departments, negotiations with the Fishery Departments run in parallel, with consultation at every stage. Only when these procedures have been followed and Ministers have approved the proposals is authority given to order the new ship.

I hope that I have said enough to satisfy the House that we do not undertake lightly our duty to obtain for the taxpayer the best value for his money. And it is not a consequence of this that our designs are old-fashioned—indeed the reverse is true. Royal Navy ships and weapon systems have a well-founded reputation for continuously pushing at the frontiers of technology. There are many examples of this. One only has to travel abroad to speak to other navy staffs to realise that they appreciate that, if sometimes we do not.

I hope that I have been able to present a fairly clear picture of the way in which the Royal Navy operates its fishery protection squadron, to underline its importance, and to explain why it is that we need the best possible ships for the task—and this does not necessarily mean the cheapest. I hope that I have shown that considerable care goes into preparing a naval staff requirement and that all the right authorities are consulted. I have tried to explain why ships which do not meet the agreed standards laid down in the naval staff requirement are rejected, and why the "Osprey" was rejected in particular.

I hope that we shall be in a position before long to announce our decision about the choice of OPV. But the decision that we make will have implications for the next 25 years and will represent a not insignificant sum of public money. We must therefore continue to ensure that we develop the right solution in the light of all the available evidence, remembering always that it is the taxpayer who provides the money.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.