Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I remind the House that Back-Benchers’ speeches are limited to eight minutes. That, of course, does not apply to Front Benchers, although they might bear in mind the time available when making their comments.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the assessment of the Government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review that two Future Aircraft Carriers are needed in the post-Cold War world to provide a seaborne base from which British military power can be projected and that a destroyer and frigate fleet of more than 30 ships would be needed to maintain two concurrent medium-scale deployments; views with concern the view expressed by Admiral Sir Alan West, when First Sea Lord in 2004, that the reduction of the destroyer and frigate total from 35 to 25, instead of the 32 promised in the Strategic Defence Review, meant that the country was taking risk on risk; notes with dismay persistent suggestions that six more will be mothballed, leaving an effective destroyer and frigate force of only 19; demands urgent clarification from the Government about its proposal to close Portsmouth or Devonport naval bases and calls upon the Government to provide an assessment of the implications for the long-term strategic vulnerability of the remnants of the surface fleet; sympathises with Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the current First Sea Lord, that a failure to proceed with the Future Aircraft Carriers, which have still not been ordered though scheduled in 1998 for deployment by 2012 and 2015, would make his position untenable; and calls on the Government to clarify its intention on naval procurement in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review.
This is the first time during my 15 years in the House that I have managed the treble: questions, a statement and the debate in the one day. It is a pity that I did not secure the Adjournment debate and get a full house.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who has consistently championed the Royal Navy and done a great deal of research on that front as part of the shadow Defence team.
In a recent debate, I put on record my party’s support for the strategic defence review undertaken in 1998. It was a good review, which came to sensible conclusions about the sort of threats that the United Kingdom was likely to face. The review was reasonable in its expectation that the United Kingdom should be able to carry out one medium-sized and one small operation simultaneously, plus an occasional additional small operation. However, the defence planning assumptions that flowed from that have been exceeded in each of the past four years. In July 1998, the SDR promised the replacement of
“our current carriers from around 2012 by two larger, more versatile, carriers capable of carrying a more powerful force”.
At the same time, it was decided to reduce the number of attack submarines
“over the next few years from 12 to 10”
and the destroyer and frigate fleet from 35 to 32. It was also decided that
“22 modern Sandown and Hunt class mine-hunters would be sufficient rather than 25 as previously planned”.
The then First Sea Lord reluctantly accepted those reductions, given the promise of new carriers.
The case for the carriers was simple: the ability to deploy offensive air power was central to future force projection operations. However, we could not be certain that we would always have access to suitable air bases. The two proposed new carriers would constitute a seaborne base from which a combined force of Royal Navy and RAF aircraft would be able to operate.
At the time, the reduction in the destroyer and frigate total to 32 was based on the numbers needed for “two concurrent medium-scale deployments”, and the loss of two submarines from the 12-strong attack force was excused on the basis that all 10 attack submarines would be equipped to fire Tomahawk land attack missiles. At the same time, the Government undertook to remedy long-standing undermanning in the Royal Navy. They claimed that personnel released by the changes set out would be redeployed across the service to meet shortfalls. Once manpower problems had been solved, they said, the net effect of the review on the Navy’s regular manpower requirement would be a reduction of some 1,400. Of course, the actual reduction since 1997, when the Government came to power, has been 10,000.
In December 2003, another defence White Paper entitled, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”, again stressed the role of the Royal Navy in projecting force from the “sea onto the land”. However, a hint of what was to come was clear:
“Some of our older vessels contribute less well to the pattern of operations that we envisage and reductions in their numbers will be necessary.”
A supporting essay to the White Paper stated:
“Since SDR our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions. We expect to see a similar pattern of operations in the future, with the emphasis on multiple, concurrent Medium and Small Scale deployments. A major lesson of the last five years is that the Department and the Armed Forces as a whole have to be structured and organised to support a fairly high level of operational activity at all times.”
Despite the White Paper’s admission that operations had been more numerous and varied than the SDR had expected, on 21 July 2004 a supplement to the White Paper was published that proposed cutting the size of the fleet. Once again, the praises were sung of the yet-to-be-ordered future carriers and joint combat aircraft, as well as the new assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, and the forthcoming Bay-class landing ships. The logic of the Government’s treatment of the Royal Navy up to this point runs as follows: all the armed forces were scaled down at the end of the cold war, but adjustments were needed to reflect the strategic shift from a defensive role in Europe to the mounting of far-flung operations from a sea base. That required large strike carriers as a centrepiece, and a loss of five frigates and submarines was apparently a price worth paying in 1998.
Instead of being cut from 35 to 32, however, the frigate and destroyer force has been cut from 35 to 25. Instead of being reduced from 12 to 10, the submarine force has been cut from 12 to a maximum of eight. The carriers—one of which was supposed to be in service by 2012—have not yet been firmly ordered, and the Government are now giving no target in-service dates, despite their previous willingness to do so. The projected 12 Type 45 destroyers, which have a key role in the air defence of the sea base, have been reduced to a programme of eight, but only six have been ordered, and ships seven and eight may never be built.
It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about reductions to 25. Would he care to comment on the report for the Economic Research Council—which I understand is chaired by Lord Biffen, who was a Minister in Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Government—which calls for the Royal Navy’s fleet of frigates and destroyers to be slashed from 25 to 14 and for investment in unmanned aerial drones? Will that be the future Conservative policy?
I am not responsible for the policies of all sorts of groups outside the House, as the hon. Lady well knows. Perhaps she might want to think of a more pertinent point next time.
On the subject of ship reductions, such massive reductions might have been expected if events since the publication of the SDR had shown the world to be a safer and more secure place—but it is not. The escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan, leading to the increased deployment that we have heard about recently, the continuing threat of Islamist terror, the Iranian nuclear programme, the North Korean bomb and Russia’s rearmament are all testament to that. The number and variety of operational deployments have consistently exceeded the assumptions of SDR, but what has the Government’s response been? It has been to weaken the Royal Navy drastically by reducing the total of its major warships, while disingenuously arguing that their replacements need be fewer in number because each will be more powerful than its predecessor.
I hope to offer a more sensible intervention than the last one. Does my hon. Friend agree that the importance of the Type 45 is that it has a radar system that makes up for the inadequacies caused by the removal of the Sea Harriers? Unless we have the full selection of 12 Type 45s, we will not be able to provide the umbrella of protection that we need for our fleet when it is at sea.
My hon. Friend is correct about the capability. The worry about decreasing from 12 to 10 to eight to perhaps six Type 45s is that the level of cover would be far too low, given the potential operational requirements.
I have a problem with the whole concept of “capability rather than platforms” that the Government advance. Their argument that they were able to reduce numbers because they did not previously understand the capability of what was coming is untenable, because the capability of the new generation destroyers, submarines and surveillance aircraft were perfectly well known to the MOD when the original totals were agreed in the SDR in 1998—before the Kosovo campaign, before 9/11, before the invasion of Afghanistan and before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In the case of the Type 45 destroyers, not only may the total be as low as half a dozen, but the repeated requests of the Royal Navy for them to be fitted with Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles have been flatly refused by the Government.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that there is an additional argument if increased capability is used as an excuse for reducing numbers? What about the other side? Presumably, any potential enemy’s capability is increasing in the same way.
Indeed, although I caution my hon. Friend against applying logic too closely to MOD policy, as he might find it lacking.
The dubious rationale for the policy advanced by the Government is that what matters is capability, not platform numbers. That argument was elevated to the status of a doctrine by the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute on 26 June 2003. He concluded that “advances in technology” and
“the astonishing speed with which we can increasingly operate”
“Measuring the capability of our Armed Forces by the number of units or platforms in their possession will no longer be significant”.
Perhaps we cannot disregard increases in capability, but to say that measuring the number of units or platforms in the possession of our armed forces will no longer be significant strikes me as completely irresponsible.
In response to that statement, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, told the magazine Warships International Fleet Review, in an “emperor’s new clothes” moment, that
“no matter how good a ship is, it can only be in so many places at any one time.”
That was a specific rebuttal of the then Secretary of State’s argument that the number of units or platforms would no longer be significant in measuring the capability of the armed forces. Admiral Sir Alan West also pointed out that
“You need a lot of Type 45s to give the same coverage as a naval air-defence fighter.”—
a reference to the calculated risk taken in phasing out the FA2 Sea Harrier six years before the joint combat aircraft was expected to come into service with the first of the new carriers in 2012.
As a very short-lived former member of the Admiralty Board, I came to today’s debate to voice some sympathy with the sentiments expressed to the House. I understand the list of criticisms that the hon. Gentleman has made, but we will put those right only with extra investment. Is he bringing new money to the Navy today, or is he going to give us his usual list of uncosted whinges?
There will probably come a point in the not-too-distant future when I will be on the Government Benches answering the questions and taking responsibility for policy. In the meantime, it is this Minister and this Government who need to answer for one basic fact. They set out the defence planning assumptions that came from the SDR, and they are responsible for the overstretch. Either they need to reduce those assumptions or they must increase the resources to match them. What they cannot do is to continue with those assumptions in the light of the current force strength. Doing so produces continual overstretch, the results of which we see daily. As is customary for the Opposition—and as Labour did when in opposition—we will produce our own review of what we believe to be this country’s foreign policy imperatives, and from that we will conduct a full review when we take office, as the Government did in 1998. In the meantime, it is up to the Government to defend their stewardship of our armed forces, which I am afraid has been lacking up to now.
I shall give way again in a moment; I am aware of your strictures about time, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
On the decision to dispose of three Type 42 destroyers and three Type 23 frigates, the First Sea Lord said:
“My gut feeling is that we need a destroyer/frigate force of about 30 ships…I would still much rather not be losing those three Type 23s. It is a painful cut, and I believe we are taking a risk. We shouldn’t delude ourselves.”
Referring to the Type 45s, he added:
“To put Tactical Tomahawk in a Type 45 destroyer requires a relatively insignificant amount of money, and exploits the virtues of a platform you’ve already paid for. The problem is there is no money. I had hoped, I have to say, that we might have had a nod in that direction. But we haven’t, and it will have to fight its way through the equipment programme in the normal way.”
His conclusion was chilling:
“What people do need to be aware of is that there is a risk with these reductions…my concern overall is that we are taking risk on risk”—
a risk for which the Government are answerable.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. There might be an argument as to whether the required number of ships is the number that he says is necessary, or the number that the Government are introducing. Setting that aside, if his figures are correct—and in the light of the question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson)—where would the money come from? If he is not prepared to say, that is very unfair. Would it come from another part of the defence budget, and if so, which part? If not, from which other public expenditure budget would it come?
These are not my figures but those that the Government produced as a result of the SDR. This is the number of ships that the Government said that they required in the armed forces to carry out their policy, as a result of their own defence review. My question is: what has changed? According to the defence planning assumptions arising from the SDR analysis, the Government required a certain number of ships. They did not change those assumptions, and I imagine that that they are not changing now. Why, therefore, has the number of ships required to carry out those assumptions gone down? It is not me who has said that we are taking “risk on risk”; rather, it was the former First Sea Lord. I am simply putting it to the Government that those carrying out the policy described by the Government in the SDR believe that they are not being given the tools to do the job that they need to do.
When we take office, we will look at the defence planning assumptions and we might conclude that a different foreign policy would require a different shape of defence, and if so, we will set it out. However, discussing that is not the purpose of today’s debate; its purpose is to hold the Government to account for their stewardship of the Royal Navy, which, in the words of those in it, seems to be failing very badly.
I will continue, if I may.
When the First Sea Lord talked about the Government taking risks, what did he mean? We live in a hugely interdependent global trade environment in which none of us will be immune to potential damage inflicted on partner economies. Much of this trade is maritime trade. Seaborne terrorism could cripple global trade, and we already know, for example, of al-Qaeda’s plans to blow up ships as they sail through maritime “choke points” such as Suez, Panama and the straits of Malacca. Admiral West continued to spell out his concerns both up to and after his retirement. At the beginning of 2006, he drew an unfavourable comparison between the 65 destroyers and frigates available at the time of the Falklands war and the 25 available now. He said:
“Whenever the UK has got to the stage when it is spending too little on defence, the nation has suffered, due to some unforeseen event not long afterwards…Maybe I’m just a silly old b****** but I’ve got 41 years experience of these things and I can tell you we need 30 destroyers and frigates for what the Government wants us to do.”
The following month, the Public Accounts Committee found that about a third of the armed forces were not ready to go to war, with the situation facing the Navy being of particular concern. The report followed a study by the National Audit Office in 2005, which found that 60 per cent. of the fleet was in a good state of readiness, with 24 ships placed on reduced support status and a sixfold increase in the practice of cannibalisation, whereby some ships are stripped of vital components, such as sonar equipment and missile systems, to keep others in operation.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is extremely knowledgeable about naval matters, but he persists in quoting the previous First Sea Lord and has twice mentioned the term “overstretch”. I was at a briefing last Monday with the current First Sea Lord when one of the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative colleagues asked the same question as him, saying that the Navy was overstretched. The First Sea Lord emphatically denied that, saying, “Stretched, certainly—given current commitments that is inevitable—but overstretched, certainly not.”
The hon. Lady will be delighted when I come to what the current First Sea Lord said before pressure for a correction was applied by the Ministry of Defence.
It was only to be expected that, having devastated the size of the fleet, the Government would turn their attention to the infrastructure that supports it. Consequently, a review of the three existing naval bases—Devonport, Portsmouth and Faslane—has begun, generating widespread fear that either Devonport or Portsmouth will be closed. The strategic folly of forcing the Royal Navy to depend on a single south-coast naval base is too obvious to require elucidation, yet some naval staff officers are contemplating it if the alternative is to lose even more warships from the front line.
In a debate in Westminster Hall on 5 December, a junior Defence Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who is in the Chamber today, said:
“We also need to look at our support capacity at the naval bases, to ensure that it is matched appropriately to the future needs of the Royal Navy. We need to ensure that every penny counts and that resources are rightly focused on the front line. We must not lose sight of the fact that the number of ships requiring maintenance and repair has been steadily reducing.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 5 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 73WH.]
It was pointed out to the Minister that the situation was simply a result of the Government’s decision to cut the size of the fleet but, despite promising to return to that point later in his speech, he did not do so. Perhaps the Minister of State will deal with it when he speaks in a moment.
Worse was to follow when, only three days later, a tabloid newspaper reported that under a plan to help to pay for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a further six destroyers and frigates
“would be tied up in harbour on a ‘reduced state of readiness’ leaving just 19 fully-operational escort ships”
compared with the 55 destroyers and frigates in the Japanese navy. Far from denying that that was under consideration, an MOD source was quoted as saying:
“Just because a proposal is looked at by officials does not mean that it will be implemented.”
Those of us who have served in ministerial office can understand the well-hidden code in that sentence.
It thus appears that the Royal Navy is threatened not just with a choice between losing more warships and closing a major base but, quite possibly, with the loss of both. How much longer can or will the process be allowed to continue on the back of the promise—yet to be carried out—of a firm order for the two aircraft carriers? How secure is the carrier project itself?
My hon. Friend and I were elected to this place in 1992. Can he remember a time since then when the world was more dangerous and uncertain than it is today? Is not it utter folly to continue to salami-slice our Navy? Now there is the ludicrous proposal that we might go down to having one base on the southern coast, either at Portsmouth or at Plymouth, so will he give me a firm assurance that we will strongly oppose the continuing salami-slicing of our Navy and that we will not accept a reduction to only one naval base on the southern coast?
There are times when the Government of the day decide that it is appropriate to reduce the size of the defence budget or to reduce the size of the armed forces. Indeed, after “Options for Change”, we ourselves decided that, with the end of the cold war, it was reasonable to see a reduction in the size of our armed forces. However, against a backdrop of increasing international tension and of increasing deployment of our forces, it is not reasonable to cut the size of the forces themselves. I cannot recall a time when we asked our forces to do more while we were cutting their size. That is what is unprecedented.
On the issue of the carriers, the former First Sea Lord, having ring-fenced £3.5 billion for their construction, said:
“The carrier programme is the jewel in the crown of the Strategic Defence Review. Yet there are officials within the MoD casting lascivious looks at it. There is no doubt the rats are out there having a nibble. If Britain wants to remain a world power and to operate with a deal of freedom around the world, these two carriers are vital.”
I share that view.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the policy of freezing promotion for lieutenants in the Royal Navy will have an adverse effect on recruitment because new recruits at Dartmouth will not be able to see a clear career path? Furthermore, officers who have already served as lieutenants for a considerable time and who would normally expect to be promoted will now find that their career has hit the buffers so they may even consider retiring from the Navy. The policy will therefore affect retention as well. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
Many of us have received representations on this issue from those serving in the Royal Navy. There are of course inevitable consequences for manpower if we keep reducing the number of ships in the surface fleet. The Minister of State is vigorously shaking his head, so it is clearly an issue that he wants to address in his speech. I hope that my hon. Friend will get a suitable answer from him on the future plan for career paths in the Royal Navy.
There is a growing view that we are in danger of sacrificing long-term investment in properly balanced armed forces, behaving instead like “tin-pot countries” that exhaust their defence budgets on running rather than developing services. Abandoning major equipment programmes because of short-term campaign pressures ignores the fact that the United Kingdom could be facing even greater threats in the future than we are facing today. When one considers the catalogue of cuts inflicted on the Royal Navy—first, five major warships, then a sixth, then eight more and now the threat of yet another half dozen, with the incentive of the two giant carriers used to buy compliance at every stage—one sees that the feeling of betrayal at the top of the service is palpable. If, after all this pain and humiliation, one or both of the carriers fails to be ordered, that feeling of betrayal will rightly become absolute. Today we require specific answers from the Minister. When will we see the new carriers in operation? How many destroyers will we have? Will they have the ground-attack Tomahawk capability that the Navy wants? How many more ships will be mothballed? How many frigates will we have left?
The United Kingdom has embarked under this Government on high-intensity military operations with its defence budget languishing at a lower percentage of GDP than at any time since the disastrous era between the two world wars. Typically, the Prime Minister claimed that the figure had remained constant since 1997, at about 2.5 per cent. of GDP, when he added:
“If we add in the extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan”.
In reality, the infrastructure and front line of the Royal Navy are being sacrificed to finance the waging of current campaigns—an act of folly for which future generations will pay.
The current First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, said recently:
“We are at a scale of operations that requires a certain amount of investment to stay at this level. If we drop down a scale, then we may throw the baby out with the bathwater. We could turn into a Belgian navy. If we do, I’m gone”.
He would not be alone.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“notes with approval the Government’s very considerable investment in new warship building, including the new Type 45 destroyers, of which two have already been launched, the new Astute class nuclear submarines, the first of which will be launched later this year, and the two Future Aircraft Carriers, which will be the largest ships ever to serve with the Royal Navy; notes that 28 new ships have entered service with the Royal Navy since 1997; views with concern ill-informed and inaccurate suggestions that warships will be ‘mothballed’; and congratulates the Government for its responsible stewardship of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during a period of extremely high operational tempo.’.
I am grateful to the Opposition for having raised this importance issue for defence at this time. It is just a pity we do not have an Adjournment debate on defence today, because I might have had the benefit of participating in that as well. However, this debate provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the breadth of the Navy’s contribution and to clear up some of the confusion that evidently exists about its capability.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was a solid one, but he set some hares running that do not quite add up. He also carefully avoided the crunch question, which all Oppositions face as they scent what they believe to be power: are they going to make the spending commitments necessary to live up to their rhetoric and analysis? We wait with interest to see how that approach is going to develop over the months and years ahead.
I note in passing that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) is in his place. I look forward to his contribution, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He can tell us about the importance of the Royal Navy to Scotland—not just in Faslane and Rosyth, but elsewhere in the country—and how small that contribution would be with an independent Scottish navy.
In his opening comments, the hon. Member for Woodspring made a lot of play of the contribution of the previous First Sea Lord, which was forceful. He argued his corner well, but in his comments he also disparaged the existing First Sea Lord. [Interruption.] He made two references. The second was a quote and the first was a diminution of the role played by the existing First Sea Lord. Let me tell hon. Members—
No, I will not give way. Let me make my point. Let me tell hon. Members what the current First Sea Lord said on 16 February. I think that the implication was that he was forced to say what he said. That was the point that I was making when I referred to disparagement. The implication was that he was not prepared to come to his own conclusions. It is a matter of regret that that was said. It does not accord with my understanding of the integrity of Admiral Band, who said:
“I do not think, and have not said, that the Royal Navy needs a £1 billion-a-year extra to do its job or to keep ships at sea.”
That was the charge that had been made about what he said. He went on to say:
“Today’s Royal Navy is funded to do what is asked of it—not least thanks to a current investment programme of £14 billion, and the delivery of 28 new ships in the last decade alone.”
No, I will not give way, because I am conscious that we have to make progress. I will take one or two interventions later, but I am not going to be harried in the way that the hon. Gentleman quite likes. He will get the opportunity to make his point later.
I want to make a final point about budgets. When the hon. Gentleman’s party is considering what it is going to do about budgets for defence, it should bear in mind the fact that the defence budget today is 20 per cent. higher than it was in 1997, and 7.5 per cent. higher in real terms. That is a considerable investment in the military element of our overall budget approach in this country. I will deal more with that as I go on.
A key principle of the strategic defence review was that, in reshaping our forces, we would give them a real utility for dealing with the problems of the future, and not just an appearance of strength. There were arguments in the past that said that if one ship went, one other ship should come in. That was not what the SDR was about. The issue is about meeting the evolving situation and the analysis that was laid out in the strategic defence review. That is precisely what we have done and continue to do in respect of the Royal Navy. We knew that we had moved away from the risk of large-scale maritime warfare. We believed that future tasks would require a mix of capabilities—capabilities that would enable us to conduct tasks ranging from evacuation operations through to major war fighting as part of a joint force. So it has proved to be.
I referred to the evolving analysis that then has to take place. [Interruption.] If right hon. and hon. Members think that things stand still in defence planning and response, they will find it difficult to come to conclusions on a budget that makes any sense, because flexibility has to be included in the approach.
During the cold war, the role of the Navy seemed clear to us all: to protect our nuclear missile submarines and to keep the north Atlantic shipping lanes open to enable the re-supply of Europe in case of a war with the Soviet Union. Our capabilities were focused on anti-submarine warfare in oceanic environments, and large numbers of frigates and destroyers, long-range patrol aircraft and attack submarines were required. We were prepared to fight a large-scale symmetrical war against an enemy with similar equipment to ours, operating in a similar manner to ours.
That picture has changed dramatically. The Soviet Union has disappeared, and no other comparable threat has emerged to take its place, be that on land, in the air or at sea. However, as the House is very much aware, we now live in a much more unstable world. Terrorism, religious extremism, increased competition for resources, the impact of climate change and demographic shifts can lead—and have led—to crisis, confrontation and conflict. We have seen the consequence of that in recent years, be that in the Balkans, the Gulf, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone. Increasingly, we are facing asymmetric threats and our enemies are not operating with similar technologies, tactics, or constraints. That forms part of the evolving scenario that we must address. What does that mean for the Royal Navy?
The Minister is quite right that the response to the end of the cold war and the diminishing Soviet threat was that which came from “Options for Change”. However, the logic of that needs to be extended. If he thinks that the size of the Royal Navy should somehow reflect the size of the surface-fleet threat posed by other countries, and if Russia goes ahead with its rearmament programme and funds that through to 2015 with an increase in its surface fleet, what does he believe that the correct response should be?
The hon. Gentleman almost seems to be concluding—in part, he is totally concluding—that that would be a hostile posture. He seems to forget that at all times, through NATO and other points of contact, we try to bring Russia into some of our joint planning and joint responses. I think that the implication of what the hon. Gentleman says is that what Russia is doing—it is expanding—will be hostile, but the reality is that anything that is happening anywhere in the world could prove to be of a hostile nature, or less hostile, or even benign. These are evolving situations. We must try to plan and understand and then execute as best we can to address evolving threats. That will never be easy because of the lead times that must be adopted for any procurement stream, which has always been an ongoing consideration in defence planning and defence response.
Over recent years, the Royal Navy has transformed itself to meet the new global challenges that we have discussed. The range of capabilities that the Royal Navy deploys meets its requirement for adaptable, resilient and battle-winning equipment that is manned by well- trained and highly motivated people. That requires an investment in new capabilities, which involve new equipment, training, and an experience of joint operations. The Government have invested heavily in new platforms for the naval service. As I pointed out when I quoted the First Sea Lord, we have introduced 28 vessels to service since 1997, which is not an inconsiderable contribution to naval strength.
I declare an interest as a member of the Rayleigh branch of the Royal Naval Association. The Minister might recall that I warned in the previous Parliament against the decision to withdraw the Sea Harriers, which was touched on again today by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). Given that the Sea Harriers have been withdrawn, that the carriers are delayed, that the Type 45s are delayed, and that the Type 42s are being withdrawn from service, how do Ministers intend to maintain the integrity of the air defence of the fleet until the new carriers are available?
The situation has not changed since the hon. Gentleman was last given the answers to his questions. I find it interesting that people keep returning to the subject of the Sea Harriers; it is almost as if they forget or ignore the realities of the upgrade programme for those aircraft. There was no certainty that a technical solution would be found that would enable us to upgrade the aircraft in the right time scale and at the right cost. The cost was considerable—it was in the region of £500 million—and a judgment was made by the military planners.
I distinctly remember calling in the military planners who were making the recommendation to Ministers, and they had a good knowledge of the capacity of the Sea Harriers and the need for a layered defence. I asked them whether the step that we were taking was a step too far, and their answer was no, so the military advice that I received was of a nature that allowed me to have confidence. Yes, there was a risk, and we have said that we identified that risk, but we also said that any embarked fleet would be multinational and would give us the benefit of working alongside our allies, and that there would be a period in which we built up capacity. That remains the situation. Once the Type 45 destroyers and their new equipment are introduced, they will probably be the best in the world—I would say the best in the world, in terms of their air defence capacity.
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask the Minister a serious question about the interoperability of the maritime reconnaissance fleet, the Royal Navy and other services. This is the first opportunity that the Minister has had to update the House on the circumstances surrounding the grounding of the maritime reconnaissance fleet. Will he tell the House whether the checks on the Nimrod aircraft have been completed, and whether they are all safe to fly?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer, because the checks are ongoing, but I will say—he should know this, given the area that he represents—that the engineering input will be of the highest standard. The assessment of the risk presented by anything in any piece of equipment, whether for use in the air or elsewhere, has to be of the highest rigour, too. If there is cause to say that something should not be flying, sailing, or travelling on the land, the judgment will be made on a military and technical basis. The one thing that military personnel will not do is take risks with their own people, where those risks are clearly identifiable and can be dealt with. The analysis is ongoing, and it is to the credit of the RAF that it has identified the problem, acted quickly, and responded in a constructive way. We are talking about important air-maritime support equipment that is essential to what we are doing, not just in defence of our shores, but elsewhere.
If I had the answer today, I would love to announce it from the Dispatch Box. We have moved through the phases of developing and maturing the procurement process for the aircraft carriers. When we get everything into the right position—that requires industry to play its part—we will make the announcement. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) served in Tory Governments who had disastrous procurement programmes, and we are having to resolve the problems that were caused. He should ask himself why he did not get it right when he was in government, instead of criticising us for getting it right on this occasion.
The Minister should not mock my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for asking the question. We will continue to ask it, because we never get a straight answer on when the carriers will be introduced. To return to the fundamental issue of the Sea Harriers, the radar of the Type 45s will be limited to the horizon. The point of the Sea Harriers is that their radar perspective goes far beyond the horizon. By removing the Sea Harriers, we weaken the entire fleet, because we do not have the protection that is needed so vitally. There is no indication whatever that we are anywhere near procuring the joint strike fighter aircraft, let alone the carriers for which we have pressed.
I have given answer upon answer about the Sea Harriers, which had to be upgraded so that they still had their sea legs, as it were. They needed another engine, and investment was required. People forget that a big technical issue was involved that could not be easily resolved without costs or an adverse impact elsewhere on the budget. It was a military decision. I have set out the background, and the surety that I required as a Defence Minister was part of the decision-making chain and what we were doing at that point in time. We have never said that what we are doing is risk-free. That is the nature of what will happen if we embark with our own fleet in certain circumstances, but we do not envisage that happening.
As a Member from a shipbuilding constituency, I am obviously keen that the order for the carriers should be placed as soon as possible, but may I urge the Minister not to make the mistake that the previous Government made, particularly with Nimrod and Astute? The Conservatives placed orders before the projects were properly de-risked, so there was an enormous overrun in costs and time. I urge the Minister to make sure that the progress of the aircraft carrier orders is as quick as possible, commensurate with making sure that it is properly planned and scheduled before it goes through the main gate.
I can give my hon. Friend an absolute guarantee: that is precisely what we seek to do. I know that he has actively represented his constituency’s interests, as it is crucial for the Clyde, and, indeed, Scotland and the United Kingdom, that those ships be delivered. They will be delivered: we remain firmly committed to the aircraft carriers, and we are working towards that conclusion.
I am going to make some progress.
We are already in the middle of a major warship- building programme—the largest that the country has seen for many years. It will ensure that the Navy retains the cutting edge that it needs to fulfil its role, today and tomorrow, with ships that are suited to the challenges that we face. Two excellent examples are the new and highly capable amphibious assault and landing ships of the Albion and Bay classes, which provide a massive increase in amphibious lift over their predecessors, and demonstrate our commitment to providing the Navy with the appropriate tools to do its job. They improve the ability of Britain’s armed forces to take action in areas easily accessible by air or where there is no friendly adjacent host nation.
No, I am going to make progress.
Key to the future delivery of expeditionary capability for the next 40 to 50 years is the carrier strike programme. The joint strike fighter that will operate from the two aircraft carriers will provide unrivalled ability to project enduring military capability deep inland from the safety of the sea. An important milestone was passed just before Christmas, when we signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States that sets out the framework for further design and development work on the aircraft. We continue to negotiate with the alliance before making our main investment decision on the procurement of the ships that we have been discussing. We have put those joint adaptable capabilities to excellent use. The naval service was at the forefront in the early stages of Operation Telic, when 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, supported by amphibious forces in the northern Gulf, led the assault on the al-Faw peninsula, thus securing access to the southern oilfields.
Today, those same Royal Marines are engaged in difficult operations in Helmand province. They were supported until January this year by 800 Naval Air Squadron, which provided close air support in Harrier aircraft. Many more naval personnel are engaged in medical, logistics support and other vital functions at headquarters. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier, we intend to deploy four more Royal Navy Sea King helicopters to Afghanistan. In Iraq, we continue to maintain a presence in the northern Gulf, which is part of the coalition effort to protect the oil terminals through which flows over 80 per cent. of Iraq’s gross domestic product—foreign money that the country desperately needs to develop and flourish. We are the lead nation, too, in training the fledgling Iraqi navy to do that vital task itself.
Further north, Sea King aircraft from 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons continue to provide half of the support helicopter force in Iraq. The Royal Navy regularly maintains a ship off the Horn of Africa, too, in coalition anti-terrorist operations, and a senior RN officer currently commands that joint force. The Navy is operational not just in those two theatres. It may not feature in the news regularly, but it deploys ships, aircraft and submarines all over the world in various operations. These include counter-narcotics work in the Caribbean and off west Africa. In the past 16 months, Royal Navy ships and aircraft have seized 24 tonnes of cocaine, with a street value of around £1.5 billion. At this point I should like to comment on the superb role played by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service in support of Royal Navy operations.
We are all very proud indeed of the performance of our Royal Navy all over the world, wherever it is. The Minister will know that in the Navy town, so to speak, of Plymouth, there is a great deal of uncertainty hanging in the air since his announcement of the naval base review. When is that review likely to be decided upon and announced? In relation to procurement, what is happening, please, about the ownership of Devonport Management Ltd? Can he say a word about that?
I intend to cover that towards the end of my remarks.
I am setting out what our Navy does because there have been many comments implying that the Royal Navy is broken and unable to deliver. The argument was advanced by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) when he opened the debate, and we will probably hear more in the course of the debate. I shall set out the scale, the range and the quality of what our people do in the Royal Navy.
We maintain ships in the south Atlantic in support of our responsibilities for the Falkland Islands and other south Atlantic territories. HMS Clyde, the new Falkland Islands patrol ship, will enter service later this year. Through training and co-operation, we are helping countries in the Gulf, west Africa and the far east to build up their capacity to conduct maritime security. We are providing intelligence support to operations. Survey ships currently operate in three of the five oceans. We have recently introduced new fishery protection vessels, and of course the Royal Navy continues to provide the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent, with a submarine on patrol, undetected, 365 days a year, as has been the case for the past 39 years.
As well as these standing commitments, the Navy has demonstrated in recent years that it is more than capable of responding to humanitarian crises. The best example is last summer’s operation to evacuate British and other foreign nationals from Lebanon, where Royal Navy ships led the evacuation of some 4,500 people. We were also one of the first nations to respond to the 2004 tsunami with humanitarian assistance provided by the frigate HMS Chatham and RFA Diligence. These are robust demonstrations of the Navy’s global reach and flexibility.
I want to make progress and get to the point that was raised in the previous intervention.
It is clear, then, that the Royal Navy is vital to Britain’s security, and that of the wider world. It is also clear that the service does not receive the kind of widespread recognition that it deserves. Indeed, some of the press coverage in recent months suggests that a depressing mix of cuts, redundancies and cash shortages is imminent. We are told that we are to mothball up to 50 per cent. of the Navy’s surface fleet, freeze all officer promotions, and cancel orders for future warships.
That is speculation, and we will no doubt hear more of it today. We have already had a flavour of it. None of those assertions is true. The continued peddling of misinformation does not make it any more truthful. Those who do that should pause and ask themselves what effect their naked political point scoring is having on the morale of those proudly serving in the Royal Navy, and their families.
The truth is that 28 new ships have joined the fleet since 1997, and we are in the middle of a huge programme of investment in new capabilities. We are constantly examining our use of defence resources to ensure that they serve the interests of the nation as effectively as possible. As we underlined in our 2004 White Paper on future capabilities, defence cannot stand still. It needs continually to refine and adjust its posture to stay ahead of emerging threats, as well as to respond to today’s operational challenges.
We have several initiatives under way to ensure that we have the right balance between the differing demands on defence. I shall comment briefly on those. First, we are conducting a routine update of our defence spending plans to ensure that resources are directed to where our front-line forces need them most. That is what Governments should do, and do properly.
Secondly, we are reviewing our naval base infrastructure to ensure that it is the right size to support the Navy’s and the country’s needs in the future. I acknowledge the contribution made by each of the naval bases to the security of the country and to the local economy, wherever they are. It will be important for the review to explore how best to preserve these capabilities in the future.
Both Portsmouth and Devonport have put together a powerful taskforce from their local communities to argue the case. All those arguments will be taken into account as we assess what we need to do to ensure we give—
I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. I suspect that it will not be a friendly intervention, from the forceful way in which she rose, like an Exocet missile coming at me.
We are embarked upon examining how we will get best use from our existing resources. I do not believe for one moment that any right hon. or hon. Member thinks that we should spend our money unwisely in support of the front line. That means we must conduct a review and reach proper conclusions.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I wanted to speak about projecting expeditionary force and say to Opposition Members that if they wanted to see the modern and the future Navy, they could come to no better place than Plymouth, where HMS Albion, Bulwark and Ocean and the associated landing craft constitute that future projecting expeditionary force. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I certainly agree that a visit by hon. Members would be worth while. Assuming that the ships are not at sea, they would see considerable assets. I have no doubt that if hon. Members visited Faslane, they would see a considerable support base there, and if they visited Portsmouth, they would see something similar. All those characteristics are clearly in place, but we must look at the future shape, structure and needs of the Royal Navy. That also applies to what we are doing in the RAF. We must examine the number of air bases that we have and where barracks are, how we can create super-garrisons and how we can, hopefully, return personnel from Germany. We are in a period of major change which will, I believe, be for the better.
I would be grateful if the Minister could give some indication to people in Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane of when the naval base review will be determined and when he would expect to make a statement. Do he and the Ministry of Defence stick by the statement made by the Secretary of State in Portsmouth eight weeks ago that there would be no reduction—the Navy would not be reduced by six ships? He gave a firm commitment about that. Is that still the case?
I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a lot more than just that one statement—[Interruption.] I do not think he just said that. I think it was part of a much wider contribution about the way in which we view—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman asks a question, he should allow me to answer it instead of heckling and trying to shout me down. I did not do that to him.
I pointed out that we are examining what our current needs are and what our future needs will be. That is the purpose of the naval base review. The Secretary of State is wholly committed to that. We are in the process of maturing our thinking about the matter. Like any other decision, we will announce it when we are ready to do so, not before. I guess that if we announce any change, people will say, “Don’t let it affect me. Don’t do it to me.” We will need an extensive process of consultation and discussion to take any argument forward, because we must make sure that we are right in what we are doing, and those who advance any criticism are wrong. That assumes that there will be a change. We will have to wait and see what comes out of the review.
When the Minister takes into account the degree of risk and uncertainty for the United Kingdom’s naval bases, will he take into account the danger that the United Kingdom might become disunited? What does he believe the impact will be on the future of, for example, Faslane and the other naval, Army and Air Force bases in Scotland? Does he believe there is a real danger that they will close?
I do not believe that there is a real danger that they will close, because those who advocate the break-up of the United Kingdom will not prevail. As I said earlier, the hon. Member for Moray is in his place, and he can give us his analysis of how big the Scottish Navy would be and what the impact would be if I am proved wrong. In terms of planning future structure, we have to have a side eye on what is going on, but we believe in the United Kingdom and that the people of the United Kingdom want to retain the Union. Those who want to break it up and separate are a minority.
My third point is that the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet is carefully examining the balance between the requirements of the front line and the size of the support element that enables the successful delivery of that fighting power. The process of transformation is ongoing and will ensure that we maximise the Navy’s front-line capability while reducing unnecessary overheads.
I have discussed the uncertainty that that process brings, but I ask the House to take morale into account and not to run away with press speculation or even to help to create some of that speculation. I ask hon. Members to ask us for the facts, because we will always seek to give our best analysis and information, within the limits of maintaining operational security.
On 12 February, I wrote to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who—I am told—does wonderful research work for his Front-Bench colleagues. The letter was a detailed response to rebut all the arguments about the mothballing equation and the state of readiness of the Royal Navy fleet. It was a three-page letter, and I have placed a copy in the Library. I recommend that right hon. and hon. Members read that letter.
In conclusion, I firmly believe that the Royal Navy has a crucial role to play in acting as a force for good in today’s world. We are determined that it should be adequately resourced and equipped to carry out that mission. I can assure the House that the current tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that the Navy is the poor relation of the other services. The sea remains the indispensable medium for trade and access to areas of strategic interest. It is crucial to our economic vitality and our ability to protect our country and our friends. There is, therefore, absolutely no doubt that the Royal Navy will continue to form a fundamental part of Britain’s defence, and we will enable that with the introduction of more capable ships and submarines.
The subject of this debate is the state of the Royal Navy. My belief is that the state of the Royal Navy is this: it is a world class Navy, ready to fight and win, modern, relevant, capable and resilient. This Government will continue to ensure that that remains the case.
I welcome the opportunity that today’s debate affords us to consider the state and the future of the Royal Navy, and I begin by paying tribute to the bravery, skill and professionalism of the men and women who serve the Royal Navy in its valued work around the world. We are an island nation, dependent on maritime capabilities, and the Navy has proven to be a decisive force throughout its history. It is rightly held in high regard worldwide.
The role of the Navy has evolved a great deal, and its evolution continues at a striking pace even today. How the threats to which it responds have developed, and continue to develop, will determine the shape, the scale and the size of the Navy that we need.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) quoted at considerable length comments by the current and previous First Sea Lords and it is understandable that the Royal Navy has anxieties, especially with the impending comprehensive spending review. In the Government’s amendment to today’s motion, they are quick to congratulate themselves on their naval policy despite continued strains on the navy. I believe that there are still critical pinch points in manning, recruitment and retention, the increasing cost of existing procurements, and the Government’s vagueness about future procurements. We have not heard much more about the latter today. Today’s motion highlights some key issues on which we need clarification, and I hope that the Minister will soon be able to tell us about the conclusions of the naval base review and its implications.
The motion is useful in that it attempts to ascertain whether the Government intend to sustain a Navy of approximately the current size and scope. I would not necessarily commit myself as strongly as the motion does to the Navy continuing in its exact permutation, but the Conservatives are right to put down a marker to try to stop the Government reducing the size of the Navy by stealth. Alarm bells have rung in that regard recently.
If the Liberal Democrats will not commit to the present allocation of resources, can the hon. Gentleman tell us exactly what cuts in the Navy they would make? Do they still adhere to the policy of Lord Garden that the aircraft carriers should be built in the United States?
Lord Garden said no such thing, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I thought that I had set out in terms that the scale of naval operations should remain at their present level. I am not advancing an increase for the Navy, but I wish to stress the importance of sustaining it at least at its current size.
The strategic defence review of 1998 outlined the future of the armed forces and said that it should be governed by the principles of interoperability, co-operation, deployability, sustainability and cost-effectiveness in meeting a wide range of capabilities. Those principles should and must continue to apply to the Navy today. We cannot predict the exact type and scale of conflicts in which we may need to engage, or the threats and circumstances to which we might need to respond, but we need to be sure that our Navy is a flexible, versatile and effective force.
In recent years, the armed forces have been involved in a high level of operational demand, with involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in UN and NATO-led missions. Those are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. In January, the Prime Minister stated in his speech in Plymouth that we are a nation that does both “war fighting and peacekeeping”, and we must be sure that our capabilities match our modern-day expectations and demands, and continue to do so into the future. We must ensure that our forces are prepared for rapid deployment and long-term operational support, for joint operations as part of NATO or the UN, and for the delivery of aid and humanitarian support in times of crisis.
The Government often talk of the threats posed by terrorism and responding to them. However, they do not tell us exactly how our armed forces will be used in that fight or in the many other missions around the world that equally need our attention, support, resources and manpower. We must assess those multiple needs, but in his speech in January the Prime Minister did not give a clear indication of how he envisages the future of the Royal Navy or how he intends it to meet the new threats and requirements. That was ironic, given that he was on board a naval vessel in Plymouth. The Government need to give a clearer indication of how our commitments will change in the future and what changes will therefore be needed in the shape of the Royal Navy.
On the question of commitments, perhaps we could have some clarity from the Liberal Democrats. At the weekend, we had a demonstration in Scotland against the new generation of Trident weapons. The head of the Church of Scotland said that they were “morally and theologically wrong”. Cardinal Keith O’Brien said that they were “immoral”. A poll also revealed that 81 per cent. of Liberal Democrats would rather have the cost of Trident spent elsewhere. Is that the position of the Liberal Democrat party or will it continue to ride roughshod over the wishes of its voters and majority opinion in Scotland?
The opinion of the Liberal Democrats remains that Britain’s minimum nuclear deterrent should be sustained for the foreseeable future. We hope very much that in the future, circumstances will be created in which it can safely be decommissioned, but those circumstances do not exist at the moment. That is the policy that we will continue to pursue. We do not believe that the decision to renew the submarine fleet is necessary at the moment, but we remain committed to the principle of the minimum nuclear deterrent.
As I said, the Government have not given a clear indication of how they think that the Navy needs to reshape itself in the future. The Navy’s slogan is “A world class Navy, ready to fight and win”, and we must ensure that we have a Navy capable of fulfilling that. We must ensure that it is efficient, cost-effective, versatile and as powerful as possible within the limits that we can afford.
As a result of withdrawing certain elements of the fleet, the number of standing tasks we can perform will be reduced and we must debate whether that is in the national interest and its implications for the delivery of hard and soft forms of naval power. References to hard and soft power imply the ability to assist in peacekeeping initiatives and humanitarian interventions, such as those we saw in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, as well as the continued campaigns of hard force that we have seen in other parts of the world.
When we talk about hard conflict, we notice that the pattern of military engagement in recent years has shifted towards land and air-based conflict. Much less of that hard conflict currently takes place at sea. However, the Navy continues with crucial roles in patrolling our territorial waters, monitoring potential threats, contributing to our military presence in overseas territories, and furthering our national interests.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The reach of the Royal Navy and the work that it is doing in different parts of the world is certainly very serious, and we must sustain it as much as we can. There is also the question of the protection of shipping, which remains one of the Navy’s important roles to this day.
The time is coming when we need to take another look and make a fresh strategic assessment of the demands the Navy must meet in various competing roles, as well as considering what military equipment and vessels are required to perform such functions efficiently and cost-effectively. The motion before us specifies that we must stick with the current 30 frigates and destroyers, and although I do not discredit that figure in any sense, it may well be that, because of the variety of our different needs, we have to consider whether that represents exactly the right way of going about things, or whether there are better ways of using resources. If the Government are going to make cuts in the number of vessels, they have to be clear about which commitments will be cut accordingly, and the impact that that will have on our armed forces and our national interest at home and abroad.
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 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.
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
“responsible stewardship of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during a period of extremely high operational tempo.”
However, as the National Audit Office report of 2005-06 highlights, there is a
“gap in the required experience profile across the Royal Navy”.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
I believe that we need all three naval bases as strategic assets in an uncertain world. We can all make substantial cost reductions while keeping all three bases open. This does not have to be a beauty contest between Devonport, Portsmouth and Faslane. It would be pointless to prop up one naval base for economic reasons at the expense of destroying the local economy of another. We can all work together with our industrial partners to make all three bases cost-effective and to deliver proper support to our ships in the front line. I regret the uncertainty that the review has caused to my constituents, and I hope that we shall have a speedy decision. I am hopeful, however, that the outcome will be a strengthening of all three of our naval bases, delivering cost-effective and battle-effective support, and maximising the specialist capabilities of each base to enable a modern, flexible and efficient Royal Navy to fulfil its global role and reinforce Britain’s position as a force for good in an uncertain world.
I am fortunate to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and, for that matter, the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), because they both spelled out clearly the importance of the naval base review. I am encouraged by the fact that the Minister, in answer to my intervention, gave the commitment that the options would be inspected thoroughly and in detail.
I welcome in particular the opportunity that Portsmouth has been given and share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady about the fact that Portsmouth has tried to defend the Royal Navy and Portsmouth’s part in it. We have not tried to paint the picture that it has to be Portsmouth at any price. We understand the importance to the Royal Navy of its having the flexibility provided by those three ports. That is why the argument has always rested on three bases being available for the Royal Navy.
No one can deny that there will be changes. There is ready acceptance among the work force, the community and everyone that in a changing world there will undoubtedly be changes. Those of us who have lived with this issue since childhood and under successive Governments know of such changes only too well. When I was a child, there were 48,000 people working in the dockyard. Substantial reductions over the past 40 years have reduced that figure considerably, but the effectiveness of the Royal Navy is what is important.
I share the admiration and pride with which the Minister spoke of the global commitments of the Royal Navy, whether it be in tsunami rescues, combating the drug trade or supporting ground forces. It plays a vital role. I also agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) about the importance of the debate: it is a shame that it is so short, because the Navy has traditionally played a crucial role in the defence of this country. We must recognise the fact that, if we are to ask the men and women of the Navy and the Royal Marines who serve this country to carry out increasingly more difficult tasks, we must ensure that the right support is there for them and their families when we send them off on our behalf.
It is right to ensure that our service personnel have the right equipment, and Members of the House are correct to question the Government about timing in relation to the aircraft carriers. Is there a question of money? Is the gap between what industry is demanding and what the Ministry of Defence will pay so wide? Is it right to dismiss the question posed by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who asked why it is not possible to have Tomahawk missiles on Type 45s? Why was that decision taken when, manifestly, they were something that the Navy wanted? Why are we not getting an answer?
In an intervention, I asked the Minister of State whether he would, today, recommit the MOD to the point that the Secretary of State made in Portsmouth. He was asked a simple question: is it true that there are MOD plans to take six more ships out of service? He gave a categorical answer, just to that one question. He said no. He also said, “I’ve just come hotfoot from the commander-in-chief and the commander-in-chief is saying no.” We are entitled to know, as this thing moves on, whether that is still the position. That is the simple question that I asked and it is the simple question that was posed to the Secretary of State. The House is entitled to know that number.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North talked about the importance of jobs in the naval base and the effect on the community in south Hampshire. No one can undermine that importance. Any threat will obviously be extraordinarily worrying to the community that we represent, but the case is well made why we need and should have the support of the MOD in retaining the naval bases at Portsmouth and at Devonport. There is an obvious connection with Faslane. I am sure that, as far as the whole House is concerned, there is no alternative to Faslane as long as Scotland stays in the United Kingdom, which will be for ever. I see no one seriously threatening the existence of the Faslane base.
From a sedentary position, the Minister suggests that the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) and the Scots Nats might be implying that, but that is an argument for another day when we have more time.
We need an answer on lots of issues involving the Navy. Three different terms—reduced readiness, extended readiness and, now, low readiness—are used and it is difficult to find out which ships are in which category. Parliamentary questions are not a good way of trying to elicit an answer. I am sure that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) will elaborate on the response that he got from the Minister, and I would be interested to know whether that is one of the questions that he answered. The same applies to the air arm of the Royal Navy. Of the 65 Lynx Mk 3 and Lynx Mk 8 helicopters in service, 21 are undergoing repair. Of the remaining 44, only 13 of the 23 Mk 3s and 12 of the Mk 8s are fit for purpose. That means that there are 19 whose state we do not know. Possibly they have been cannibalised, as ships have been cannibalised.
The situation is the same for Merlin Mk 1s. There are 38 in service with 11 undergoing repair. Of the 27 remaining, only 13 are fit for purpose. Are we not entitled to know why that situation prevails and why we have to cannibalise in such large numbers to make aircraft fit for purpose in the Royal Navy? Why are so many ships stripped down simply to maintain the seagoing capacity of a reduced number of ships? That cannot be proper foresight and planning for the Royal Navy of today.
We hear repeatedly about increased capabilities on ships. No one who has been to the new shipbuilding yard at Portsmouth naval base can fail to be full of admiration and pride on seeing the front ends of four Type 45s being built alongside each other—it is a magnificent sight, but we are told that we cannot be sure that we will get past six ships. We cannot be sure of the cost of the seventh and eighth boats, as we cannot be sure of the cost of the two Astute boats, Nos. 2 and 3. We have no agreed price for them. What is that doing to the Royal Navy’s morale? As we cannot get agreement on the cost of those ships, does that mean that we are not going to get them? Who is going to pay? Will it be the existing surface fleet? Will there be a reduction in the Royal Navy’s capability?
A ship can be very effective, but, as the hon. Member for Woodspring said in opening the debate, ships can be in only one place at one time. Unless they have, for example, a sea-based Tomahawk cruise missile on board, their range and effectiveness are greatly reduced. I hope that the Minister will say where we are going on some of those crucial issues, on which I believe the House is entitled to an answer.
As a Member representing a seat containing the largest naval base in western Europe, I have taken a close interest in the debate. I shall touch on elements of the Opposition’s motion, as well as concerns raised elsewhere, and avoid turning the debate into one based solely on the naval base review and the so-called beauty contest between Portsmouth and Plymouth.
In recent weeks, the media have run comments—no doubt some Opposition Members might want to repeat them—made by a forthright, provocative and, at times, mischievous First Sea Lord, Sir Jonathon Band. However, had hon. Members been with me, and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), last week when we listened to him as members of the naval part of the parliamentary armed forces scheme, they would have heard him get very serious. He made clear the position that he has absolute confidence that the Navy can do all that is being asked of it at present, not least because of the ongoing investment and the delivery of 28 ships in the past decade alone. Believe me, the First Sea Lord is not a man who bows to pressure from anybody. That assessment of him, which was made from the Opposition Benches, is quite wrong.
We are seeing the most significant shipbuilding programme in modern times, although that fact tends to be obscured by a smokescreen put up by the media. The comprehensive spending review is coming up and a number of the stories that have been circulating about cuts are misleading at best. There is no doubt that whenever budgets are being considered either nationally or locally, Departments start to leak. They leak from within, and separate directorates also start to leak. They are all competing for money and are all determined to wind up the stakeholders; the politicians, who see a good story and an excuse to attack the Opposition, whatever their political colour; and the public, who believe that severe and arbitrary cuts to services are imminent.
It is important, however, to separate the rumour mill from the serious need to reassess, in a changing world and in the light of advances in design and build, the strategic requirements of our armed services. Of course each branch of our armed services wants more money to spend—who would not?—but we need to take care that the money provided does not disappear into a black hole and that we avoid serious duplication and inefficiencies.
The 2003 defence White Paper marked a change in approach on defence spending. Now, with the marine industrial strategy and the defence industrial strategy—the DIS—we are moving towards a crucial point. The decision on the aircraft carriers is clearly part of that process, as is the review of naval bases.
The DIS called for a wholesale transformation of the UK’s naval industrial base. It set out a broad template for the consolidation and restructuring of the industry to focus on the long-term capability management of in-service assets. The Minister Lord Drayson has persevered; to his credit, he is making progress, despite the great scepticism about whether he would be able to bring the big industrial players on side. In part, he has managed that by using as a lever what was on offer under the future carrier programme, for the CVF. It is an interesting strategy, but it may in part explain why the CVF has not yet been brought forward. In fact, the Minister could not have been clearer when in January this year, he said in a Jane’s publication:
“I tried to be as clear as I could to the industry that we really needed to see this consolidation take place before we were in a position to go forward with projects like the carrier.”
Clearly, the carriers are important, but something much more important is at stake: the future of UK defence industries plc. We need to get the balance right between the fleet’s needs and the certainty of orders, to protect the Navy’s requirements as well as the skills base required in the industry. A regular order book makes much more sense than the peaks and troughs that we currently see. There is evidence that the industry is responding positively and beginning to understand that there could be long-term gains and profits for it if it works with the MOD.
There has been enormous investment in the Royal Navy, and that has been entirely right. We are seeing its first fruits—ships and vehicles. The Navy can expect a further £14 billion to be spent in the next 10 to 15 years, and that is unprecedented. The money is to be spent on upgrading the destroyers with the new Type 45s, on new attack submarines and, of course, on the new aircraft carriers.
That is an impressive programme, but the Navy has its part to play and has to be more efficient. The current naval base review affects Plymouth, and we are making the strongest possible case for the retention of its base, because we know that we can help the MOD and the Navy meet its future needs.
The Opposition want the outcome to the review urgently, but speed is not the answer. I want a thorough review of the evidence and an understanding of the implications for Plymouth and the wider south-west, rather than a rushed decision. Plymouth’s case for an ongoing role is powerful. I believe that, viewed on the basis of the criteria applied across the other bases, the Navy has a long-term future in Devonport. Such a level playing field is important if the final decision is to be accepted. One of the strengths of our case is the synergy that exists between the Navy and the private sector. I am sure that both Plymouth and Portsmouth can make emotive cases, but ours in Plymouth is being made on hard facts and figures.
The capacity of the industry to respond to the requirements of the Navy, whether for surface build and support or for refit, is vital for the service, and DML in Devonport has a key role to play. DML is a company that produces the type of outcome that the MOD requires; it is efficient and its work is to the highest specifications. DML, its management and trade unions, fully comprehend what is being asked of them.
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend; I need say no more than that.
At the moment, there is a problem in respect of the ownership of DML, and that is a little unsettling. However, I have no doubt that, once those matters are resolved, the work force will settle down and do what they do best—that is, provide design, build and support solutions for the Navy.
The Opposition’s motion refers specifically to the new aircraft carriers. There are those in this House who cannot see the logic behind the development of the carriers and would prefer to see the surface fleet further enhanced. Yes, such investment would bring additional capability, but neither the versatility nor the flexibility that the carriers can offer. The new CVF will involve the largest vessels ever to have seen service in the Royal Navy, displacing some 65,000 tonnes and capable of supporting an air wing of about 50 aircraft.
The carriers bring a strategic platform; it is like parking a small island, with all that that can offer, off the coast of an area close to a military theatre. Frigates and destroyers cannot do that. If we face conflict in a region where we have no close allies prepared to allow us to use them as a base, the demand for such vessels becomes very clear.
Today’s Navy is being asked to carry out tasks differently from how it was expected to two or three decades ago. The trainees and staff whom I met recently at HMS Raleigh understood well their role in the modern Navy; I should like to put on record how impressed I was by the young people whom I met.
It is right that the MOD and the Royal Navy should seek to procure vessels that meet the flexible requirements of the future—the vessels on which the young men and women who walk through HMS Raleigh’s gates will serve. It is, of course, also right that the MOD should take care to ensure that it is absolutely clear what the new carriers should cost before setting a contractual price for the industry to tilt at. Like most Members of this House, the Defence Committee included, I want the project to be taken forward and the Ministry to get best value for the taxpayer while ensuring that what is procured is what the Navy needs.
I look forward to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s response at the end of this debate. The carriers working alongside the new Type 45s and the new Astute class submarines, providing improved air capability, will continue to do what the UK needs to protect our shores and our citizens.
If I had to put a subtitle to this debate, it would be “The Mystery of the Phantom Fleet”. We have been told repeatedly today, as we have been told previously by none other than the Prime Minister—so it must be true—that we are engaged in the largest shipbuilding operation for many a long year.
I have been looking into the Government’s record on ordering ships, because that is what we should be concerned about. It is not so much the question of what ships are coming into service today and have done during the past few years, but those that we can expect to come into service in the future because they have been ordered during the course of the present time.
If I asked hon. Members how many ships had been ordered by this Government in the past five years, how many would they say—half a dozen, a dozen? If they were a little sceptical, they might say only three or four. Well, I can enlighten the House: the answer is one—an offshore patrol vessel is the only ship to have been ordered by this Government in the past five years.
Let us look back at the Government’s orders during the entirety of their time in office. During that period, they have ordered 16 warships, consisting of six Type 45 destroyers—originally there were supposed to be 12, then eight and now six, and there are grave fears, as we have heard, for ships seven and eight—four landing ships, two survey ships and four offshore patrol vessels, including HMS Clyde, to which I have already alluded. Of those 16 vessels, 10 may be described as major units. However, nearly all were ordered some years back.
The Government are talking about a great shipbuilding programme. Could they mean the future carriers? All I can say to them is that I would like to help them out at this point. They should get on with it, place the order for the carriers and we will do our bit to carry forward their tonnage and certainly agree that the Government have that great shipbuilding programme under way. However, the Government show no sign of ordering the carriers.
Let us compare that with the last eight years of Conservative Governments and what was ordered in the way of warships then. It does not quite compare to one offshore patrol vessel: two ballistic missile submarines, three nuclear powered attack submarines, nine frigates—including one, HMS Grafton, that this Government sold for a pittance when it was only nine years old—seven minehunters, two oilers and a survey ship. If I stopped at that point, one would think that a pretty good record by comparison, but I have not even mentioned the largest warship in the current Royal Navy, the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, and the two assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, for whose coming into service the Government are happy to claim credit. However, the ships were, of course, ordered under the previous Conservative Government.
Although 28 ships may indeed have come into service, we have to ask ourselves what future generations will say about the ships that will come into service as a result of the orders placed by this Government. There is, however, an even more serious matter than the cuts in warship numbers—to which I shall return if possible in the limited time available—which my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned in relation to the Prime Minister’s comments about the level of the defence budget. I have the table showing the percentage of gross domestic product represented by the defence budget since the Government came into office. When they came into office, it went from 2.9 to 2.6 per cent., to 2.8 per cent., to 2.7 per cent., 2.7 per cent. again, to 2.5 per cent., 2.5 per cent. again, to 2.6 per cent., to 2.5 per cent. and then 2.5 per cent. again. One might say that that was a nice, steady constant level, except for the fact that we have engaged in two major conflicts in the past few years. We now gather that the Prime Minister thinks that we should include the cost of those two major conflicts in our comparisons of defence spending. If the cost of those conflicts—
No, I am afraid that I will not. The hon. Lady has intervened a great deal, and kept my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) out of the debate. I have no hesitation in saying no to her.
When we engage in war fighting, the Government must find the extra money in the Treasury reserve. If they are not prepared to do so, they should not undertake to engage in conflicts. The future of the armed forces is being mortgaged to pay for current campaigns. That is unacceptable and irresponsible.
Let me return to the question of what the strategic defence review said would be done, and what was actually done. The SDR laid down the number of warships required, which was cut from 35 originally not to 32 but to 25, as we have heard. May we have a categorical assurance from the Under-Secretary when he winds up that there is no proposal to mothball another six warships of the frigate and destroyer class, and to reduce the number of frigates and destroyers from 25 to only 19?
The Minister of State referred with a considerable degree of pride to a letter that he had written to me about the readiness of ships and how they can be kept at different stages of readiness. He was happy to say that he regarded that as a model that people should rush to the Library to consult. I found only one point of real interest in that letter: he said that there were currently six major vessels in the Royal Navy of destroyer or frigate level or above that were at a state of low or very low readiness—a state in which they could reasonably be described as mothballed. Of those six ships, four were in refit, and one was HMS Invincible, which we know has been placed into mothballs. Which is the sixth ship? A frigate, a destroyer or an even more important ship is in a state of low or very low readiness, and we want to know its name today. Clearly, it is not being refitted, so I presume that it is being mothballed.
In the extremely limited time left to me, I shall refer briefly to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), and the hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), all of whom are desperately concerned about the future of Portsmouth naval base. I say to them, as I do to the Government, that changes made for short-term reasons, whether to face current threats or budgetary restraints, must always be made in as flexible and reversible a way as possible. It is therefore absolute folly for the Government, because they have felt constrained to cut the number of ships way below the total that they said was necessary to fulfil the duties of the fleet, now to turn round and close one of our three naval bases. Just as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was right to defend keeping the nuclear deterrent because of the uncertainties of the future in respect of nuclear threats, it must be right to keep the basic infrastructure of three naval ports, however much we scale them down, to face the uncertain, unknowable threats of the future, which might require us not to be dependent on a single naval base in the south of England.
Much more could be said, but I only have time to make one final point, which relates to the admirals. I do not envy either the current First Sea Lord or the previous one. The Government may try to convince themselves that there is a rumour mill and that stories are got up by the press, but those of us who know the Royal Navy know that the admirals are desperately worried about what is being done to their service. They are even more worried about the failure to order the carriers, which were the ramp used to make them accept the other cuts. That cannot go on; we need answers from the Government.
We have heard some strong contributions tonight, and I want to refer to a few of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made another strong contribution, which referred to the benefits and strengths of Portsmouth as well as to the community there. Likewise, we heard a considered speech from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who referred again to the review. I should make it clear to the House that the point is to get the review right, rather than to be quick about it. It is therefore right that we take our time, and listen to the strong arguments that have been put forward today and previously, in coming to a decision. Many issues need to be discussed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) also made a strong, considered and well-informed speech about Plymouth and the issues that are important to its community. She also referred to the comments of the First Sea Lord. I want to put on record again the statement by Admiral Band on 16 February 2007:
“I do not think, and have not said, that the Royal Navy needs £1 billion-a-year extra to do its job or to keep ships at sea. Today’s Royal Navy is funded to do what is asked of it—not least thanks to a current investment programme of £14 billion, and the delivery of 28 new ships in the last decade alone.”
I have listened carefully to the Opposition contributions, and I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in welcoming the debate. In the short time that I have worked alongside him, the issues considered in relation to the Navy have been interesting.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the collective amnesia of the Opposition. It was interesting to hear their comments, and we have still not heard what they are willing to spend on the armed forces or the Royal Navy.
Since I took up my present appointment, I have witnessed operations at first hand, through visits to HMS Sutherland in the north Arabian Gulf, and to HMS St. Albans, which played a leading role in the evacuation of people during the crisis in Lebanon, and the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. In addition, I have visited 42 and 45 Commando in Afghanistan. I have never failed to be impressed by the professionalism, dedication, bravery and commitment of the men and women of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.
Navy personnel have not just been in action at sea. I recently visited our forces in Afghanistan, where there are many naval personnel. About half of those I met were from the Royal Navy or Royal Marines. They were deployed in many different roles: as members of combat forces, helicopter pilots, fighter pilots, engineers, medics or support. There can be no clearer demonstration of the relevance and importance of today’s naval service than the fact that it has been intimately involved in operations in Helmand and has made a direct difference to the lives of people there. The efforts of our brave servicemen and women are, I am sure, acknowledged by all Members of the House.
In the hospital at Camp Bastion, I met a Royal Marine who had been wounded in the leg. Talking about his recovery, he said that all he wanted to do was get back to his mates in his company. That shows the determination and courage of our armed forces personnel.
It is ironic that the Opposition raise in their motion questions about reductions in numbers of ships in service with the Navy. I realise that many of them were not around the last time their party was in power. Perhaps they have forgotten what happened to the Royal Navy under their stewardship. Although I believe that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) mentioned this, I remind them that in the early 1990s there were 48 ships in the Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet. As a result of the “Options for Change” review, that number had dropped to 35 by 1997.
Let me be absolutely clear: contrary to recent inaccurate reports, we have taken no decision to reduce the number of Royal Navy warships in operational service, or to place six frigates and destroyers at ‘extended readiness’, or to ‘mothball’ 50 per cent. of the fleet. We are determined to maintain an effective and potent Navy, and I underline the fact that it is resourced with enough frigates, destroyers, and other capital ships to meet our current operational commitments.
What is more, the present Government are committed to introducing new capabilities into service with the Royal Navy. That does not just mean new and more technologically advanced ships and submarines, although that is necessary, of course; it means looking at new weapons systems and upgrading those that we will retain into the future, supplying new fighting vehicles for the Marines, and making sure that there is a solid support base within UK industry.
At the heart of our plans for the future are the two new aircraft carriers. They will be the largest and most powerful warships ever built in this country and will form the cornerstone of our expeditionary capability. When they enter service, the UK will have significantly greater strike capability, and it will be primarily based at sea—4 acres of British sovereign territory able to travel more 500 miles per day. Equipped with offensive air power in the form of the joint strike fighter, carrier strike will form the core of the most capable mobile strike force outside the United States and represent a quantum leap in military capability for the UK’s armed forces.
They will be complemented by the versatile Daring-class destroyers, which will reinvent the traditional backbone of the Navy—its frigate and destroyer fleet. We have ordered six of those. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State attended the launch of the second, HMS—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As I was saying, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State attended the launch of the second, HMS Dauntless, at the end of last month. The Type 45s will be the largest and most powerful air defence destroyers ever built for the Royal Navy and will feature a world-beating air defence missile system. They will also have a comprehensive suite of other weapons and equipment that will ensure that they can be deployed on a wide range of military tasks. Equipment already selected for the class includes a main gun for shore bombardment and either the Merlin or the Lynx 8 helicopter, both of which will carry Stingray anti-submarine torpedoes. Each Type 45 will also be able to embark a force of up to 60 Royal Marine commandos or other troops and use its aircraft and boats to support them on operations. In short, they will be highly capable ships that are able to make a decisive impact across a spectrum of operations.
We are also investing in new and powerful nuclear hunter-killer submarines, the first of which, HMS Astute, will be launched shortly. They too will offer a wide range of capabilities, including the ability to project power from sea to land in the form of the extended range Tomahawk missile. We have ordered three to date, and the first will be launched this summer.
Ashore, the manoeuvre capability of the Royal Marines has been significantly improved by the recent procurement of a fleet of Viking vehicles. The Viking is one of the MOD’s most advanced armoured land vehicles and is the first armoured vehicle to be operated by the corps for more than fifty years. The amphibious Vikings are all-terrain vehicles capable of operating anywhere in the world, and they can be quickly deployed in jungle, desert or arctic conditions. They are currently proving their worth on highly demanding operations in Afghanistan, and the feedback that we have had is excellent.
We have made marked progress in modernising and updating the Royal Navy. One of the best examples is the new Sonar 2087 system, which has a much improved performance against quieter nuclear and conventional submarines, as well as a capability in the demanding littoral environment foreseen in the SDR. With the introduction of the highly advanced Merlin helicopter, it provides the Navy with a quantum increase in anti-submarine warfare capability. The result is that underwater area coverage is increased ninefold and surface radar coverage is doubled. Merlin is also significantly faster, has greater endurance and carries twice as many torpedoes. We have signed a £1 billion deal to ensure Merlin is kept up to date and ready to meet all emerging future threats. I saw Merlins operating in the Gulf, and I pay tribute to the work they are doing there contributing to maritime security.
I could go on to talk about the other areas where we have made tremendous progress in modernising and updating the Royal Navy, but I think that it is obvious that the Government are not neglecting the Navy—indeed, it is clear from the list of our achievements that we cannot be. We will continue to deploy worldwide in support of our nation, our people and our interests. We will continue to ensure that we have sufficient numbers of capable and motivated personnel at the heart of the service, and I believe they can look forward to a bright future carrying forward the proud traditions of the naval service and as a force for good.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes with approval the Government’s very considerable investment in new warship building, including the new Type 45 destroyers, of which two have already been launched, the new Astute class nuclear submarines, the first of which will be launched later this year, and the two Future Aircraft Carriers, which will be the largest ships ever to serve with the Royal Navy; notes that 28 new ships have entered service with the Royal Navy since 1997; views with concern ill-informed and inaccurate suggestions that warships will be ‘mothballed’; and congratulates the Government for its responsible stewardship of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during a period of extremely high operational tempo.