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Armed Forces: HMS “Endurance”

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the situation with regard to the Antarctic patrol vessel HMS “Endurance”.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will first wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Lance Corporal Christopher Harkett, Corporal Dean John and Corporal Graeme Stiff, who were killed in operations in Afghanistan this past weekend.

HMS “Endurance” is due to return in April aboard the heavy lift vessel MV “Target”. Subject to a detailed survey, our intention is that the ship will be repaired prior to her return to service.

My Lords, that is an interesting statement, but the noble Baroness will be well aware that “Endurance” has a dual function, not only as a supply vessel to the Antarctic but also in rescue operations. The vessel has given invaluable service with the increasing number of cruise ships there, some of which have accidents, as happened only two or three weeks ago. What will happen if “Endurance” is not ready by the start of the next Antarctic touring season later this year? What replacement has the Minister in mind for those valuable and important functions?

My Lords, I should make it clear that the primary role of this vessel is to patrol and to survey the Antarctic and south Atlantic, maintaining a sovereign presence in that area and supporting the global community of Antarctica. The primary function of the vessel is not sea rescue, although it has performed that responsibility when in the vicinity. The ship has never been in the area for 12 months of the year, but we appreciate the importance of having a presence there. The Navy command has made a plan, the details of which we do not want to give at this point, but there will be a vessel in the area during the winter.

My Lords, we, too, send our condolences to the families of the soldiers tragically killed in Afghanistan.

On HMS “Endurance”, does the Minister have any idea of the cost of all these repairs? Does she agree that such an incident should serve as a lesson on the impact that operating too few ships can have on naval capability?

My Lords, until the vessel returns, we will not be able to make a final estimate of the cost. The vessel is due for two sessions of repair and serious maintenance between May and October this year and between May and October next year. It is hoped that those two costs, which are already in the budget, will go a long way towards meeting the cost of the repair to the damage. On whether we operate too few ships, we think that we can provide an alternative ship for the area not at the expense of other deployments. A balance has to be struck between ships with extra capability or more ships; that always has to be taken into account.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that reports that “Endurance” was to be withdrawn in 1982 immediately led to serious misunderstandings on the part of the Argentine Government that Her Majesty’s Government were no longer prepared to defend the Falkland Islands? If the Government were ever to decide—presumably they will have to at some point—to withdraw “Endurance”, does she agree that it would be important for explanations to be given, through diplomatic channels, to the Argentine Government that we are, as I assume we are, ready to continue to defend the islands?

My Lords, “Endurance” is not planned to go out of service until 2015. As that time approaches, we will have to consider what we should do about a replacement. The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have discussed who should take prime responsibility for funding this kind of exercise, given, as I said, that the ship’s primary purpose is the sovereign presence in the area. We think that this is an important area. Important discussions are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty and submissions to the United Nations will be made by May of this year on possible future expansion. We are very well aware of the importance of having a presence in this region.

My Lords, first, I enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute. Will the noble Baroness comment on press reports that this serious incident arose through the changing of seawater filters while the ship was under way in the Magellan Straits rather than in dry dock or shallows, and that “Endurance” had her annual maintenance at Simon’s Town in South Africa rather than, as was normal practice, in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the ship had its service and was signed off as being adequate and up to standard, so I do not think that we need have any concerns about that. The difficulty arose during routine cleaning of freshwater filters. I am told that a seawater valve was changed and that the crew could not close it properly, which led to water coming into the engine room and elsewhere on the boat. Therefore, it was decided to isolate the engine room to prevent further water from coming on board. As a result, the ship lost propulsion. It was a routine exercise and, until we have the full inquiry into what went on, which we cannot carry out until the ship is back home, it would not be wise for us to comment at this stage.

My Lords, I understand that a Chilean naval vessel and helicopter went to the rescue of the “Endurance” along with the Norwegian cruise ship. This obviously underlines our long-standing relationship with the Chilean navy, from the time of Admiral Lord Cochrane onwards. What representations and thanks have been conveyed to the Chilean Government for this help?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. We received assistance from the Chilean navy in the immediate crisis and when it provided two tugs to tow the ship to safety. Appropriate thanks have been expressed.