Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:20 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Denzil Davies Mr Denzil Davies , Llanelli 5:20 pm, 19th July 1982

We believe that the Government should restore the cuts that they made in the Navy and restore its strength to the level that they inherited from the Labour Government. We do not believe that the Government can do that because of Trident II. That is why we believe that Trident II should be cancelled. I should return to that point later.

We should not forget also—the Minister referred to this matter—that the task force could not have been sent to the South Atlantic without the enormously efficient back-up that was provided by the Merchant Navy, by the dockyards and by the naval stores and depots. As the House knows, the Government either requisitioned or chartered 50 ships of the Merchant Navy, all of them manned by volunteers. Without them the task force could not have been sent and the fact that they were able to be brought together so quickly is a great tribute to all involved and also to the foresight of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East and the Labour Government—as mentioned in a previous debate—in setting up a Merchant Navy register.

We were also fortunate that we still had a merchant fleet. With the growth of flags of convenience, it has steadily declined over the years. It has been estimated that if the decline continues at the present rate, and had the Falklands crisis occurred at the end of the decade, there would have been very few British merchant ships left to send. Ships registered in Panama and Liberia cannot be requisitioned for war and men cannot be asked to risk their lives for a flag of convenience.

The Goverment should give serious consideration—again, in all fairness, the Minister mentioned this—to establishing a proper maritime strategy for Britain. That cannot be the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. It must take into account other Departments—the Department of Trade, the Department of Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Such a policy, if properly co-ordinated, would not only assist our defence but would also provide decent conditions of service for our merchant seamen, who have been shabbily treated over the years, and would provide help for our shipping and shipbuilding industries.

The Government could make a start—the Minister expressed the same sentiment—by ensuring that the replacement for the "Atlantic Conveyor" is built in a British shipyard. It would be a national disgrace and an insult to the men who died on that ship—the Minister mentioned the captain and the others who died—if the new ship were built in a foreign yard. The Prime Minister is fond of calling upon trade unionists and others to show what she calls "The Falklands spirit". Perhaps she could now call upon the board of Trafalgar House to show that Falklands spirit and build the replacement in Britain. After all, we all know that over the years Trafalgar House companies have done quite well out of the public purse, either in tax avoidance schemes or in Government subsidies.

The future of the dockyards is a major part of the defence review. If it were not for the skill and efficiency of the dockyards and the naval stores, the task force could not have been sent and it could not have been kept operational in the South Atlantic. Despite that—we have heard it again today—the Government are going ahead with the ultimate rundown of Portsmouth, despite the postponement for a few months. They are still planning to close Chatham and Gibraltar. There are also a number of naval stores such as Llangennech, in my constituency, and Deptford, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), which also played a major part in the Falklands campaign by ensuring that replacement parts were sent to the Falklands quickly and promptly. We call upon the Government to halt and reverse the closure of these dockyards and stores and to instigate another inquiry into the problems of the dockyards. Chatham and Gibraltar should be kept open and the rundown of Portsmouth should be cancelled.

The Falklands campaign has shown the crucial need to maintain the fleet in a state of operational readiness. If the closure plans go through, that ability will be gravely impaired. Indeed, the more the question of the dockyards is debated in the House and outside, the less convincing—the Minister was not convincing today—is the case for the closure of the dockyards. If Chatham is closed, there will not be the necessary capacity of expertise to refit our hunter-killer submarines and to keep them in a proper state of readiness. Since the Government are placing so much faith in those submarines—I do not quarrel with that—as the core of our naval defence, it is extraordinary that they should want to close the one dockyard that has the capacity and the skills to keep the nuclear-powered submarine fleet in an efficient and proper state of readiness.

To a great extent, Portsmouth and Gibraltar are the victims of the Secretary of State's decision to build disposable frigates and to forgo to a considerable extent what is described as mid-life modernisation. The Secretary of State put the matter clearly in a debate on 25 June 1981. I believe that it is worth quoting. He said: Secondly, we can maintain our surface fleet at its present full strength only through a continuous programme of rents and major mid-life modernisations, requiring a huge and costly dockyard infrastructure. Typically it can now cost up to £70 million to modernise an old "Leander" frigate, which is actually more than our target cost for the new type 23 frigate."—[Official Report, 25 June 1981: Vol. 7, c. 389.] It is indeed, and the figures have changed a great deal since then. The target cost was about £60 million. It had to be less than £70 million.

Those figures, with their slide rule accuracy, are very suspect and have become more suspect since. What a coincidence—a type 23 frigate costing more than the mid-life refit of a "Leander"-type frigate. I am told that it has never cost £70 million to refit a "Leander"-type frigate. Perhaps that figure was at last year's prices but the figures look extremely shaky when they are analysed. The position has become worse.

In a debate on 1 July the Secretary of State said that the type 23 frigate would now be upgraded. He said that it would now cost around £90 million at September 1981 prices".—[Official Report, 1 July 1982; Vol. 26, c. 1064.] Around £90 million at last year's Ministry of Defence prices is about £100 million at this year's prices Now we are being told that the new type 23 frigate will cost close on £100 million, What will be the corresponding cost of refitting a "Leander" frigate? I do not suppose that it will be £100 million.

The idea that £100 million-worth of frigate could or would be thrown away like some paper plate is ridiculous. As I understand it, the composition of the figure has changed. The idea of planned obsolescence—that ships should be allowed to become obsolete without refitting—is ridiculous. The Government should reverse their policy of planned obsolescence. They should keep the dockyards open and provide the Royal Navy with proper refit facilities as most other navies do.

We have a defence policy which is "unbalanced and over-extended"—that was said by the Secretary of State in his statement. Since then the Government have decided to buy Trident II and have fought a costly war with consequences that we still do not know entirely. The policy now is even more unbalanced and even more overextended. The Government should cancel the Trident project, restore the Navy cuts and give serious consideration to a maritime strategy extending beyond the limits of defence policy itself.

As Britain is an island close to a continent it is inevitable that our defence, foreign and economic policies should, to some extent, reflect that fact. However, over the past generation the balance has tilted too far towards continental considerations and it is time that it was redressed. Our defence, foreign and economic policies should again reflect the fact that we are an island and not a continental nation. As it seems that the Government do not have the will or the inclination to redress the balance—in my opinion, they will make it worse—the next Labour Government will have to do so.