Skip to main content

UK/EU Navies

Volume 458: debated on Monday 26 March 2007

9. What recent assessment he has made of the performance and requirements of the navies of (a) the United Kingdom and (b) other EU member states. (129303)

We regularly assess the performance and requirements of the Royal Navy through routine departmental planning processes. The performance and requirements of navies belonging to EU member states are matters for the countries concerned.

At this time, we should remember with pride the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century, as well as 400-odd years of excellent service to this country. Instead, under this Government, the Navy has been cut, cut and cut again, to the extent that the First Sea Lord has said that this country’s naval capability risks being turned into that of Belgium. He has called in particular for two carriers, which the Government have promised. The main gate decision should have been taken in April 2004; three years later, we must ask when, if ever, the order for the carriers will be placed.

The hon. Gentleman began by discussing the slave trade, and I echo his sentiments on that. We are talking about not only the passing of an Act of Parliament in terms of the abolition of slavery, but the bravery of the Royal Navy—in the main—on the high seas; it tried to stop that ongoing trade after the passing of the relevant Act in this House all those years ago, and many lives were lost in its doing so. The bravery of the Royal Navy should be marked, alongside all the other events that are taking place in respect of the abolition of the slave trade.

The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions, but his main question was about the carriers. We are still committed to carriers, and an announcement will be made when we are ready to make it.

The Minister will know that there were two birthday celebrations last week: the European Union was 50 years old and, last Thursday, our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary was 55. At the celebrations in Berlin, there was a discussion about further co-operation between our EU partners. Following on from St. Malo in 1998 and Le Touquet in 2003, is the Minister satisfied that, as regards the Navy, we have the capabilities required to work more closely with our colleagues so that we can have a more collective approach to our armed services?

I recognise one of the birthdays. Let me deal with the EU aspect. In building up our capabilities with NATO and EU, not only as regards the Royal Navy but across our armed forces, we are meeting the various challenges that have been set, including the headline goals that were laid down for 2010. That is part of the process of ensuring that we have the capabilities required not only to meet the foreseeable demands as best we can anticipate but to be ready for, and able to address, the unforeseen. There are many examples of joint training taking place to build up that interoperability between nations. It is important that we work with our allies in the EU and in NATO and that we stop those who are advocating part of this proud nation coming out of NATO, which would diminish our capacity to defend these shores and work against good European tradition.

Is not one of the requirements of the United Kingdom Navy to obey the rules of engagement set by the Ministry of Defence? Did not the current rules of engagement that allow no conflict in Iraqi waters with Iranian forces lead directly to 15 of our service personnel being abducted by the Iranians?

Rather than speculate about events, let us stand back and understand the sensitivity of the situation. There is too much speculation about what happened and what did not happen. Those carrying out that mission clearly have to respond to the level of threat that is posed to them. We will have to investigate that when they are safely returned to these shores and we get their version of events rather than the speculation that is being paraded around in the media and elsewhere.

Clearly, the most important requirement for the Royal Navy is personnel. One of its great sources of new recruits is the sea cadet units around the country, including HMS Minerva in Llwynypia in Rhondda. However, those units get no direct guaranteed funding from the Ministry of Defence. Is it not time that we put them on a proper footing?

If my hon. Friend looks into this, he will find that that is because of the way in which the sea cadets have been set up as a charitable organisation. I do not have all the information to hand as to the precise structure, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who has responsibility for this, responds to him in detail.

Most of the 29 ships that have joined the fleet since this Government came to office were ordered under the previous, Conservative Government. Is it not a fact that in the past five years the only warship order has been for a single, solitary offshore patrol vessel? When the order for the carriers eventually, and belatedly, comes through, will the Minister guarantee that it will not be used as cover for the cancellation of the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers, which the Navy says it needs to ensure that the carrier taskforces are properly protected?

As has been said many times from the Dispatch Box by previous Administrations as well as this one, there is a continuum in the defence of this country. It does not surprise me that ships that have been commissioned in the past 10 years were ordered in previous periods. The important aspect is that those orders were carried out because it was acknowledged that it is important to maintain the strength of the Royal Navy. On top of that, there is a projected £14 billion capital programme for the Royal Navy in the next decade. That includes carriers, Type 45s and other vessels for the Royal Navy. At the end of that, it will be a formidable Navy.

The Royal Navy is at the point of change—change for the better.