Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Dick Douglas Mr Dick Douglas , Dunfermline 6:43 pm, 6th July 1982

I shall not take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins), who has spoken about a constituency interest in the P110. I hope to learn more of the significance of that aircraft in coming days. However, I wish to speak directly of my own constituency where the naval base and dockyard of Rosyth is located. Other hon. Members representing dockyard constituencies have referred to the work undertaken to meet the Falklands crisis. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the wonderful work done at Rosyth.

We are thankful that some of the ships sent out originally from Rosyth such as the "Plymouth" and the "Yarmouth" will be returning. I understand that the frigate "Plymouth" is due to return in the next week or so. We are grateful for a change of policy by the Government which means that the "Fife" county class destroyer has been reprieved. There is nothing that better indicates the patched-up and patchwork nature of the White Paper than the omission of a massive annex that appeared in the previous year's White Paper dealing with merchant fleets.

There is nothing in the current White Paper to show the importance of the Merchant Navy in the Falklands crisis, nor that the Government have grasped the importance of having a suitable and viable Merchant Navy to support other naval operations. When I raised the question last Thursday of a replacement for the "Atlantic Conveyor", the response was clearly a bromide. No other nation with a maritime background and depending on a naval strategy would be so mealy-mouthed as to say that it would be left to the vagaries of the market to decide a replacement for a ship like the "Atlantic Conveyor". As my right hon.

Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) has remarked, it will be necessary to pay more attention to merchant ships if massive use of naval forces is contemplated in future. It is therefore absurd to rely on foreign yards to build ships for the Merchant Navy.

We are seeing the rundown of our maritime capability. The Select Committee on Industry examined British shipbuilding. There is need for a maritime strategy. Part of that strategy should be devoted to ensuring an increase of merchant vessels built in British yards. There has also been a rundown in refits in the dockyards. In 1976–77 there were 58 major and normal refits. In 1980–81, the figure had fallen to 38. I concede that refits are becoming much more complicated and more costly. I appeal to the Minister to give further information about the dockyard study to which reference is made in paragraph 521 of the White Paper. All the paragraph says is: the Dockyard Study referred to in last year's Statement is now being re-examined in the light of the defence programme review to see to what extent its recommendations remain valid. I imagine that few of its recommendations remain valid in the light of the Falklands dispute. I want to know what the Government intend to do about the overall position of the dockyards. What are the implications, if Trident is set in train, for the refit programme of a dockyard such as Rosyth? I understand that an "Ohio" type class submarine is to be built in the United Kingdom. Is it intended that the refit will take place at Rosyth or at Devonport? Or is some other programme of study to be embarked upon? Those in Rosyth who recognise that the programme had to be set aside because of the commitment to the needs of the Falklands crisis want to know about the long-term programme. I take the view that it is questionable whether we should build Trident. I am not unilateralist. I have made my view clear. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) is not here. He flits in and makes his inflammatory speech, and before anyone can reply he walks out. Privy Councillors have that privilege.

One of the major arguments against Trident, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out, is that payments for it will swallow 15 to 20 per cent. of the Ministry of Defence's capital expenditure from the end of this decade until the middle of the next. There was some argument as to what would be included in capital expenditure. That is the view of David Greenwood, the director of the centre for defence studies at Aberdeen. I presume that he knows what is meant by capital expenditure, and that is an enormous chunk of the expenditure that would go on equipment.

If the view is taken that we should remove ourselves from the strategic nuclear deterrent area—I accept that is what it means and that Polaris will not last much beyond 1990—then certain other things are set in train. The buildup of what are loosely called conventional weapons has to be considered. Currently we rely on a threat to destroy the whole of the northern hemisphere to keep West Germany free. To anyone who looks at the matter sensibly that is an absurd proposition.

I am not sure that it is correct to take the view that the major threat is that posed by the Soviet Union. I believe that there is a great deal to be said for the views expressed by Gerald Smith, who led the United States of America in the SALT 1 discussions. It was felt that there was great advantage in new technology by which one man could knock out a number of tanks with new weapons. There was evidence of the vulnerability of tanks to new weapons during the Yom Kippur war. If the great advantage of the Soviet Union is in their tanks, what are the Government's views about the new technology? We have heard little about that.

I pay regard to the changing nature of Soviet power and believe that it has moved away from looking at Europe. I do not pretend to be an expert, but if one looks at Jane's "Fighting Ships" one must be impressed by the might of the Soviet navy. It is not a navy that is content with looking at Europe; it is looking at the Soviet world role. If we are to combat that, our Navy must have a world role. I accept what is said about SSNs, but it is absolutely absurd that a gestation period of almost 10 years is needed to get a replacement for the "Oberon" class diesel-powered submarine. There are arguments for SSNs and diesel-powered submarines, but equally there is an argument for a powerful surface fleet. My criticism of the Government is the same as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East—that they have not considered that.

For a long time we have been designing and redesigning ships when we should have been moving ahead because that would provide jobs for our shipyards. It should have been done for a long time and not just as a result of the Falklands crisis.

There has been a great deal of criticism about materials used on the ships. I take those criticisms on board, but I recognise that ships in any war will be sunk and the most inflammable and dangerous material used on a ship is fuel and ammunition. The other materials of course have to be looked at. The Admiralty marine research technology establishment is a unique centre in my constituency that was being run down. What role will it be given in assessing the consequences of the Falklands campaign on ship design?

We have had no discussion of new technology. One of the most fearful aspects of the White Paper appears in para 312 headed "Space". It states: The Soviet Union devotes enormous resources to the development and operation of spacecraft. This effort is steadily increasing. The number of satellites launched gives an indication of the scale of the Soviet programme: in 1981 the total was 124. By contrast the West launched 28. A comparison of the number of rocket launchers used to put single or multiple payloads into orbit shows an all-time total by the end of 1981 of 1,437 for the Soviet Union, 7861or the United States and 45 for the rest of the world. I remember going to an election meeting where Lord Bertrand Russell received guffaws of laughter from the audience when he said that humanity would be capable of producing satellites that went round the world and fired whenever attacking forces desired. That was fancy, but I have been told that the Soviet Union has a satellite in space with a life of 4,000 years. We argue about deterrence, but how does the West react to that fearful prospect? How do we make the Soviet Union recognise that space should be peaceful? I am annoyed at the Government and my party for not saying what is in train because those of us who are not experts cannot comprehend what is happening.

If people had seen at the time what was happening in Goose Green, San Carlos and elsewhere in the Falklands, they would have been horrified. One of the most terrible things I have seen was some of our people returning to this country who were not our nationals, and what hurt me most was to be told—I hope the Minister will deny it—that these people, who were mainly catering staff, had to go through immigration. That is a disgrace, and one I hope that can be expunged. Our Forces deserve great credit. I pay my tribute to them all. I hope that the House will pay regard to those effects of the Falklands campaign.