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 Eustace Willis Mr Eustace Willis , Edinburgh East 12:00 am, 2nd March 1964

I shall say something about that a little later.

When the incident happened at Brunei we had neither a Commando carrier nor an aircraft carrier in the vicinity. "Bulwark" was returning home and "Albion" was on the way out. The "Ark Royal" was on the way home and "Hermes" was on the way out, so that neither was in the area at the time of the incident.

Coming to a more recent incident, on 17th February the naval correspondent of the Glasgow Herald reminded us that in connection with the crisis in Cyprus we have certain naval forces in the Mediterranean. I will quote what he said, because he is rather generous. He places them rather higher than dos the hon. Gentleman. He said: The so-called Mediterranean 'fleet' is now reduced to three destroyers or frigates, the fourth ship of the squadron having been detached for service in East African waters. The only other effective warships are four small wooden coastal minesweepers based at Malta and two submarines used for antisubmarine training. About six more minesweepers are in reserve, either at Malta or Gibraltar, and there is also an anti-submarine frigate in reserve at Gibraltar. In addition, the Commander-in-Chief's yacht, the 'Surprise', can be used as a frigate if required That is rather more generous than the hon. Gentleman was in the statement he gave to me, for which I thank him, concerning the disposition of our Fleet. That was the position.

We were told by the Daily Mail, however, on 31st December, that "Centaur" was making her way slowly through the Mediterranean, in case she was needed in the Cyprus crisis. But her real destination was the Middle East, where she was due to relieve "Ark Royal". One thing is certain, she could not have been in two places at once, but, fortunately, she was able to proceed to Aden, embark No. 45 Commando and a squadron of helicopters and proceed to Mombasa. Had she been required in the Mediterranean, "Victorious" would have had to steam another 5,000 miles to get to East Africa. That was the position at that time.

While dealing with this, may I ask a question about commandos? I understand that as a result of recent incidents we have four Commando units abroad and only one at home. How does this affect the tour of duty of these units because, I think that the tour of duty required of these men should not be too long. I should like to take this opportunity of associating my hon. Friends and myself with the congratulations offered by the Civil Lord to the men of the Royal Marines. I cannot associate myself with the expression of opinion that we hope to see them still doing well in 300 years' time, but for what they are doing we are certainly grateful to them.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman gave me an indication of the dispositions of the Fleet, and I am very grateful to him for doing so, but will he look at these dispositions and compare them with the language which he used at the beginning of his speech today, when he said that we must have a worldwide presence, that everywhere where we have commitments it must be seen that we have the strength to bring adequate forces to bear? These were some of the things he said. I ask him to compare these words with the dispositions of ships at the present time.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree, as many naval experts recognise, that our forces are very thinly scattered over a wide area. One thing that illustrates this is in an area that was peculiarly ours, the Indian Ocean. America now considers that we have reached the limit of our capability in this area and intends to have a naval presence in the area herself. That seems to me to indicate the sort of problem we are faced with.

I could deal with this at much greater length, but my hon. Friend who is to wind up the debate for the Opposition will deal with this problem from a different point of view, although making very much the same point. I wish, instead, to follow this up by looking at the Estimates and the White Paper to see what is being done about this. Before doing so, however, I should like to pay my tribute to the officers and men of the Royal Navy for the fine spirit and manner in which they carry out their duties in the widely varying conditions in which they are called upon to serve, and in spite of the difficulties with which they are too often faced.

To return to the White Paper and my argument, seven additional "Leander" class frigates have been ordered, and one helicopter support ship. Apart from these and the Polaris programme, the other ships mentioned as being under construction or on order are all in completion of earlier programmes. I refer to the missile destroyers, completing the programme of six; the assault ships; the conventional submarines, of which programme the "Oberon" class is now finished; and the nuclear submarine which has been brought to a halt.

The Polaris programme has definitely meant the bringing to an end of the hunter-killer nuclear submarine programme. That programme has been stopped for five years and probably will be stopped for another year or two as a result of the Government announcement that we are now to build five instead of four Polaris submarines. On the face of it, it seems that this Polaris programme is holding up what I would call conventional shipbuilding.

Let us look, again, at the Estimates, and, in particular, that part of the Estimates dealing with the construction of new naval shipping. If we look at Table I, which covers the list of ships in the course of construction, but not launched, we find that whereas the number was 12 in 1962–63 it fell to 10 in 1963–64, and this year it is down to seven. In Table II, which gives us the ships under construction, which have been launched but not accepted into service, we see that the number was 12 in 1962–63, 13 in 1963–64 and nine in 1964–65. I accept those figures because we are completing programmes which were begun some time ago. But there is no evidence in the White Paper that there are any new programmes being considered, other than the Polaris programme and the aircraft carrier.

If we are to start new programmes, the expense will be enormous, much more than it is now. This seems to me to give an indication of the effect that the Polaris programme is having upon our conventional forces. I agree that the completion of these ships goes some way towards meeting the problems that I have indicated exist. I agree, too, with the hon. Gentleman when he talks about the improved quality of the various ships now coming into commission. But it does not matter how good or how modern a frigate is, or how valuable the equipment is, when it comes to a question of numbers. One frigate cannot be in two places at once, no matter how good its equipment might be. These are the sort of problems to which we ought to address our minds.

I turn to the question of manpower. From my reading of the situation, it is not so rosy as the Civil Lord has indicated. We are being asked this year for a Vote of 103,000 men and women. I mention women, because the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) usually picks me up if I miss out the women. This increase, as we have been told, is to make it possible to meet the demands for the Polaris programme. On the face of it, this sounds fair enough, but there is within the problem of overall numbers, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, the problem of getting the right numbers and the right kind of manpower.

This is particularly true of skilled technical manpower. For several years now there has been a permanent shortage of technical manpower. It is not something that has happened during the past year or two. It has been in existence in the Service for eight or nine years. I have a large file of letters, answers to Questions and replies to points that have been raised in previous Estimates debates.

Going back to 1962, I was told on 1st August that nine ships were without their full complements of chief electrical artificers and chief electrical mechanicians, whilst 46 others carried first and second-class electrical artificers and mechanicians instead of chiefs. On the same day I was told that the rosters for promotion to chief rate in all the artificer branches, with the exception of the engine room branch, were empty. The shortage of manpower was highlighted at the beginning of last year, when the Government decided to place H.M.S. "Blake" in reserve because of the shortage of skilled manpower. This ship cost £15 million and it had only done two years service, but it could not be manned.

At the same time, last year the then Civil Lord—I see that he has left the Chamber now—admitted that "Tiger" was also under-manned and that certain items of its equipment could not be operated. Although it was still in commission, some of its equipment was not operational. This was the situation of "Tiger".

These were the ships which, in the White Paper of 1960, we were told had long endurance, good command and communications facilities, and the ability to move troops and equipment quickly in an emergency, while still retaining their full fighting efficiency. I would have thought that ships of this calibre during the past few months would have been exceedingly valuable. Instead of that, today "Blake", I understand, is in permanent reserve, and I am glad to hear the announcement that something is to be done about it. Till today the position, as I understand it, has been that "Blake" was in permanent reserve, that "Tiger" was little more than an office because of the lack of manpower. This is what was actually said by one correspondent—"little more than an office", and that "Lion", too, was badly undermanned. Why is it that both of them have been brought home?

Let me quote from The Times, which is not a newspaper that is given to making rash statements—[Laughter.] I apologise, I meant the Glasgow Herald. [Laughter.] All right, we will accept that the Glasgow Herald is more responsible than The Times. As a Scottish Member, that is a correction that I am willing to accept. It said: The Tiger already has a much-reduced crew and is virtually a floating office. The Lion's complement will be similarly reduced on her return. This was last September—