Vote a. Numbers

Part of Orders of the Day — Defence (Navy) Estimates, 1964–65 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd March 1964.

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Photo of Mr Gerald Reynolds Mr Gerald Reynolds , Islington North 12:00 am, 2nd March 1964

We have had our one-day debate on the Navy, as we usually do each year.

The point I want to put is the, quite simple one that for 12 years we have been attempting to do more than our resources could manage, and in the process we have been gravely weakening ourselves. We have, in a sense, tried to do two things at the same time.First, we have sought to be a nuclear power, matching missile with missile and antimissile with anti-missile" That was said in the House on 23rd January, 1958, by the right hon. Gentleman who will shortly become the Secretary of State for Defence.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: Those are not unworthy aims, but let no politician, of any party, be under any illusions as to what all this has meant. It has meant that over twelve years we have slithered from one crisis to another. Sometimes it has been a balance of payments crisis and sometimes it has been an exchange crisis, but always it has been a crisis. That is what the new Minister of Defence said only six years ago, in his resignation speech.

I can only suggest that we are in a similar position today. We are having this debate only a few days after the Bank Rate has been raised by 1 per cent. after the worst monthly trade figures since the end of the war, and after one of the biggest single drains, in one day, on the £.

Despite these crises, which the right hon. Gentleman in 1958 said were the inevitable results of our policy, he is now presenting to us, as is the Admiralty, Estimates of £2,000 million, part of which is to maintain, or try to provide, what is called an independent nuclear deterrent for this country.

The right hon. Gentleman, in that same debate, said: It is not a mean thing to wish to be independent in nuclear power of both East and West, although it may be that in the West in future no-one really will be independent in nuclear power."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January, 1958; Vol. 580, c. 1295–6.] The right hon. Gentleman was right then. He is talking absolute nonsense now to try and make out that we can be what is really meant by being an independent nuclear Power. This would mean, if it is to mean anything at all, that we could create by our own efforts an adequate second-strike nuclear capacity. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber would be foolish enough to say that we can do that.

We are being provided under the Nassau Agreement with five Polaris-equipped submarines. We are told that this will enable us to be an independent nuclear Power. But the Minister himself told us last Wednesday that the Americans possess thousands of nuclear weapons of one kind or another. As he well knows, they have had a careful survey made of their defence expenditure over the last few years. They have rationalised and tried to work out exactly what benefit they get for every dollar spent on defence. They have come to the conclusion that to have an adequate independent deterrent they must have thousands of nuclear weapons, and 41 Polaris-equipped submarines to provide an effective part of that deterrent.

We were told last week and again today that it is worth while spending about £500 million in the end. The Civil Lord appears to be shaking his head at that figure. Judging by the estimate he gave us today of the cost of re-equipping one aircraft carrier at Devonport it certainly will be something like £500 for this nuclear deterrent. We shall have to provide facilities we have never provided before. We have had to re-equip aircraft carriers before and, therefore, presumably we have some idea of what that work will cost, but we have had no experience of the Polaris submarine. It is a completely new venture. It would not surprise me in the least if this deterrent cost us £500 million by the time we are finished. And we tire to spend this money to provide only a fraction of what is needed to meet the requirements of an independent nuclear Power.

The present Minister of Defence was right in 1558 in saying that if we spent the kind of money involved in an independent nuclear deterrent we would he forcing ourselves into economic crisis and would get the worst of both worlds, because we would not provide an adequate nuclear deterrent or adequate conventional forces or, as he added, adequate social services all at the same time. I do not know what dramatic improvements have occurred since 1958 to make the right hon. Gentleman change his mind, but obviously he has changed it.

The Government point out that we on this side of the Committee have said quite clearly that we would wish to renegotiate the Nassau Agreement and that we are the party which would leave the country defenceless. It is as well to look back on the situation when the Labour Party was in power. We are the party which is being accused at the moment. There is an attempt to create the impression that the country would be defenceless if we came to power. This obviously is to be one of the electoral strategies of the party opposite in the next few weeks.

Let us make the position clear. In 1951, we had a far stronger Navy and one better equipped to deal with the circumstances of 1951 than we have today to deal with the circumstances of today. Hon. Members opposite appear to be shaking their heads. We are short of aircraft carriers at the moment. We are talking in terms of building one more, and possibly a few after that. We have four in use at the moment. In 1951, we had nine aircraft carriers and there were nine under construction. Hon. Members opposite are making a great fuss in order to get one new aircraft carrier now. No doubt it is only part of the strategy to get a few more later on. We have been told that the country was in difficulty and we could not afford a new aircraft carrier. It has been postponed year after year. We are getting nearer having one, but presumably its arrival is still quite a long way off.

In 1951, there were nine aircraft carriers under construction. These are the carriers on which hon. Members opposite rely to provide air support for the Fleet. They were all under construction when a Labour Government were in office, and there has been none constructed since. "Eagle" and "Ark Royal" were under construction then—the two largest aircraft carriers we have; and the four "Hermes" class were under construction. They were being provided by a Labour Government with a majority of six in the House—in spite of the pacifist element which we had in the party and which I am glad to see in the party. We provided those ships in 1951, and yet hon. Members opposite are trying to make out that we would strip the country of its defences.

I believe that the Navy has been stripped to a large extent during the 12 years that the Conservatives have been responsible for looking after it. It has declined from nine to four aircraft carriers and from 15 cruisers down to two. I point out that the cruisers of 1951 were to deal with the circumstances of 1951; they may not be relevant to today's circumstances, but nothing has replaced them. They have gone. We have been stripped from 95 escort vessels—destroyers and frigates afloat and manned—down to 56 at present. We have roughly the same number of submarines—37 today and 32 in 1951. But in 1951 there were eight destoyers under construction, in addition to nine aircraft carriers, three cruisers, four frigates and 41 mine sweepers. They were all under construction.

The vast majority of the ships to which the hon. Member refers to show how modern is the Fleet, because of the number of ships which have come into service during the last ten years, were under construction in 1951—put under construction and being paid for by the party which hon. Members opposite are trying to make out cannot be trusted with the defence of the country. They are doing this for purely political reasons. It was costing only £278 million in 1951 for the Navy, and today we are being asked for £496 million.

I am glad to join in the congratulations on the tercentenary of the Royal Marines. There were 2,500 more of them in 1951; there were 12,000 compared with 9,500 today. We are being asked to vote on Vote A provision for 89,700 officers and men in the Royal Navy. In 1951 there were 126,000 officers and men in the Royal Navy. I argue—and it cannot be contradicted—that in 1951 to look after our world-wide conventional responsibilities the Navy was in better shape in the light of 1951 circumstances than it is today in the light of present circumstances.

Presumably this is the last set of Estimates which will be presented to us by a Civil Lord. I was flabbergasted, earlier, to hear the hon. Member speaking about the function of the Navy. He said that, first, its duty was to safeguard our 1,200 merchant ships at sea every day, and he referred to over 1,000 merchant ships usually in port. He said that it must be prepared to operate wherever required in the world and that we must be seen to have a conventional ability to bring pressure to bear anywhere where that was required.

We must ask how we do this. We must see which ships we have and where they are. We have two frigates in the West Indies. I do not know how many merchant ships there are in the West Indies—probably several hundred. I do not know what the two frigates could have done if anything had happened from the conventional point of view in the Cuba affair about 12 months ago. Would they have been in a position to protect our hundreds of merchant ships in the area? I doubt it.

Look at the Mediterranean. We have there four frigates, two submarines and six minesweepers. That is the Mediterranean Fleet, once said to be the proud emblem of British supremacy in the Mediterranean and one of the largest fleets in the world. Under the Conservative Party it has been reduced to four frigates, two submarines and six minesweepers. I gather that the Civil Lord asks whom we are to fight there. He said that we have worldwide commitments and that we must be seen to have conventional forces with the ability to bring pressure to bear. If he asks, "Who are we to fight there?", I must ask him, "Why the bases in Cyprus?" Why had it to be "Cyprus as a base" and not "Bases in Cyprus" a few years ago? If we do not know whom we are to fight there, why have a base in Cyprus in any event? We have responsibilities in Cyprus at present.

This matter is now before the United Nations. What would happen if the United Nations suggested that we should take action to prevent gun running into Cyprus? Would not such a suggestion be the sort of obligation which we would like to try to implement? I do not think that the insurance rates on freights going into Cyprus would be in- creased very much if it became known that our ships there intended to keep gun runnels out.

In the South Atlantic we have two frigates and an ice patrol ship. I do not know how they would look after our worldwide obligations. We were given by the Civil Lord a glowing picture of how the Service, our fleet, would and could maintain our obligations throughout the world. We must maintain 1,200 merchant ships, he told us, throughout the seven seas. I have given some statistics of the vessels at our disposal. I could go on and give the figures of ships in other waters, but I will not because the numbers are much the same.

I was rather surprised to hear, when we were discussing aircraft carriers, that the Buccaneer squadron afloat is engaged somewhere in the Suez area on exercises. That squadron would not appear to be of any great value at the moment if it was suddenly required in a naval capacity to perform, say, a nuclear task. It appears that it is somewhere east of Suez. It would be no good stationed there, although I suppose it might get near the Iron Curtain—but it would never get back again.

We are used to window dressing in Navy Estimates. Two years ago we had a magnificent picture presented to us in the Explanatory Memorandum about the amphibious task forces which were to be created. Each force was to consist of 27 ships. I suggest that we have not got even one of these task forces properly created, yet their numbers were in the plural two years ago.

We had a switch to another piece of window dressing in an effort to try to make out that the Government proposed to set up escort squadrons in all parts of the seven seas. Five such squadrons were initially to be provided, we were told. That was to be the number initially, although we were not told how many there would be in the end. Each squadron would have two Type 12 frigates. That means 10 ships. There would be two or three destroyers per escort squadron. Each squadron would have an aircraft direction picket; in other words, five of those. So far, I can find only three of these vessels, but because of the inadequate way in which the Navy Estimates and Explanatory Memorandum are drawn up I could be wrong. I would like to know what is happening with these escort squadrons and if any of them are in operation; or is this just another part of the annual window dressing act on behalf of the Navy Estimates?

We have a new form of Navy Estimates this year and we are asked, under Vote A, to approve expenditure of £496 million, an increase of £56 million on last year. There is one item which has been decreased; a reduction of £500 in the salary of the Minister who will be responsible for looking after Navy affairs. I can only regard this as a little adjustment that has been made on behalf of the Minister of Defence. When dealing with this matter in Committee upstairs, the right hon. Gentleman first of all opposed the idea of the Minister named for looking after these affairs having full Ministerial status. He insisted that he should be of Minister of State level. However, as a result of pressure from my hon. Friends and some hon. Members opposite he eventually agreed that the three Ministers should be of Cabinet rank, although he said, in effect, "They must have a smaller salary than mine."

I am surprised that he should have found it necessary, despite his higher position and power, to have needed to reduce the salary of these Ministers merely to ensure that they will be subordinate to him. It seems a petty action, particularly since no one claims that the salaries paid to Ministers are excessive. Only a few weeks ago the Prime Minister pointed out that many Ministers were paid at rates set in about 1832. Now it is being insisted that these three Ministers should receive even less money.

One question to which we have had no answer as yet is: what is going to happen to Admiralty House under the new set-up? Will the Minister of Defence (Navy), or (Admiralty), whatever he is to be called, live there, or will the Secretary of State for Defence have Admiralty House? If not—and I look at the salary differentials rather closely—one of his junior Ministers will be considerably better off than he, if the junior Minister concerned is to have Admiralty House slung in with his salary. The Navy kept a close watch on it when the Prime Minister was there. A naval officer went there every week to check the furniture to make sure that the Prime Minister did not "pinch" any of it. The Navy does not trust politicians in Admiralty House.

I am disappointed that in defence debates we have not had rather more information about how the new Ministerial set-up is to work. There is nothing in the Bill itself. It is only to be an enabling Measure. We were told by the Minister of Defence and by the Civil Lord that one of the objects was not only to get the three new Ministers operating as the persons responsible for taking the Chair at the various Defence Board meetings, but that powers would be granted to each of them right across the board. This new set-up comes into operation in about four weeks' time, I believe. Yet we have been told nothing about the first powers which will be carried out by individual Ministers across the board. Unless this is done quickly, there will be little difference between the new and the existing set-ups.

Surely the advantage to be gained from such an arrangement will be that it will enable things to be done right across the board. I should have thought that there should have been some thought devoted to that matter and that the House should be told what services will be carried out by what Ministers right across the board.

Is the Minister of Defence (Navy), or (Admiralty), to be responsible for Service education right across the board? I must mention Service education at Greenwich, because I am sure that the Civil Lord would be disappointed if I did not do so. Several hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were entertained right royally there only a few weeks ago. I understand that our principal host on that occasion hopes to join us in this place shortly. I only hope that he will appear before the appropriate committee and convince the members of that committee that he is a bona fide candidate before being pushed out of the Service and coming here via Winchester, as he hopes.