The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:59 pm on 28th November 1983.

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Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight 8:59 pm, 28th November 1983

I apologise to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) for not being present to hear their opening speeches. I had not intended to speak in the debate, although I am interested in the Navy since I served in it, and carried round my hammock—the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) wants us to go back to hammocks—in 1943. However, I represent a constituency that has strong naval connections. I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) said, but I disagree with him about Trident. The Liberal party has always opposed the concept of Trident as an independent nuclear deterrent. When it was first ordered we were told that it would cost £4 billion, but the latest price that I have heard for it is £9 billion, and I suspect that it will cost more. We could spend that money more effectively in other directions.

As the Minister will know, we must try to get value for money, but the idea of building cheaper ships has not succeeded. I agree with the final words of the hon. Member for Corby, who pleaded that we should not send any of our ships into action unless they are properly defended and armed, but we cannot do that on the cheap. The type 23 frigate was supposed to cost £25 million to £30 million, but the latest cost is £100 million, which will probably increase. We learnt the lesson of sending in ships ill-prepared in the Falklands.

Not enough tribute has been paid to the great success of the ships in the Falklands in shooting down planes. It was a terrible day when the Japanese sunk HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, but the fact was that they had no answer to air attack. I do not speak with first-hand knowledge, but I suspect that our ships in the Falklands did rather well against air attack until they were faced with the Exocet missile. We went there without the right answer to the Exocet, which must never happen again.

I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) about the Merchant Navy. I was honoured recently to be invited to join the Maritime League, the purpose behind which is to try to preserve the Merchant Navy. It is the backbone to the Royal Navy, and if we allow it to diminish further the support that the Royal Navy needs in time of crisis will not be there the next time round. The Merchant Navy came to our rescue extremely well and quickly during the Falklands campaign, but if we have a similar incident in a few years' time, and if Merchant Navy ships continue to disappear at the rate that they have in recent years, it will not be able to support the Royal Navy. We must give whatever help we can to the Merchant Navy. I do not like the idea of the QE2 going to Bremerhaven for a refit that could have been done in Southampton. The workers in our shipyards worked extremely well during the Falklands crisis and launched HMS Illustrious well ahead of time. Other ships were equipped in double quick time, and decks were fitted on the Canberra and the QE2 to enable them to take aircraft. It was an amazing feat, but it can never be repeated if our yards are run down and the Merchant Navy disappears.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) for mentioning the role of hovercraft in his speech, because 1,500 of my constituents are employed by the British Hovercraft Corporation. I have a recurring dream that one day Britain will wake up to hear on the news that Mrs. Thatcher has had a telephone call from the Kremlin telling her not to move any ships out of harbour because the Russians have laid mines all the way round the coast, and will press button A if those ships go out, and blow them all up. That scenario is not as stupid as it might sound, because we know that magnetic mines can be placed on the seabed for about 10 years before they are activated. If we had no means of discovering those mines, we would be in serious trouble. The hovercraft has proved itself time and again to be an ideal vessel to deal with such a situation. I went out on the trials at Portland last year, and the Minister went as well. If he was not convinced by that, I am surprised. I think he was, but once again we are dallying.

I know that the trials unit that was closed has carried on in a lesser form at east Cowes, and the door is still open. However, I am not sure how much longer Westland, as the parent company, can go on funding something that has been on trial for between 12 and 15 years. The hovercraft provides an answer to the problem of mine counter measures, and it is time that orders were placed.

I shall not bore the House with special pleas on other things. Together with the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), I saw the Minister the other day about the Sea mark system, the gun system being considered by the Royal Navy and jointly by Plessey and Bmark of Grantham. As everybody else seems to be putting in plugs, on everything else under the sun, I put one in by saying that that would be helpful to Plessey in the Isle of Wight, where unemployment was 16·3 per cent. However, I am grateful for the orders that the Ministry has placed with Plessey, which have done a great deal to improve its financial position.

A naval architect, Mr. Peter Thornycroft, is also one of my constituents, so I had better mention him. His project the S90 started life as the Osprey and if there is a future for the short squat boat, I hope that the Navy and the Minister will consider it perhaps in a rather different role from what was envisaged in the type 23. It might prove the answer for a suitable platform, to give a wider area for some of the missile systems and guns that we need.

I make a plea for Vosper Thornycroft. I know that the hon. Member for Attercliffe will remember me lobbying him years ago for a type 42 destroyer for Vospers. He was honest, and he told me to be patient and that was the message that I took back to the shop stewards. They had a fist under my chin and told me that I would never win another seat again in my life if they did not get the order. However, the hon. Gentleman did give the order but I know that Vospers today are in desperate straits and need orders. If something could be done to help it, I should be grateful, as about 60 of my constituents work there.

I can never understand when I see orders for diesel submarines going to Germany. Recently, Norway ordered four ordinary diesel submarines from the Germans. We used to build marvellous submarines in Cammell Laird and Scott Lithgow, but now the only place that can build them is Vickers. I saw a film on Scott Lithgow the other day and I realised that, like other yards, it now specialises in certain kinds of ships, as does Harland and Wolff. Is it not possible to get back those skills so that we can go round the world and pick up orders for such ships? We used to build good submarines in the days gone by. It is sickening to see that we are not capable of selling overseas. For example, most of Australia's ships are built in the United States.

The hon. Member for Corby asked why we were buying so much in the United States. Our defence industry has been rather more successful selling to the United States in recent years, and Fairey Marine had a big order from the United States army for army patrol boats. We have sold a number of defence systems to the United States, and if we became too protective for our industry there would be repercussions, and they would not look to us so kindly. This is a difficult problem, but we have not done too badly up till now.

I see the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Pink) here. I am pleased about the partial reprieve for the dockyard at Portsmouth. I hope that that reprieve will be rather more than was announced, as I understand that the dockyard is full of work and having to put some out. Why can we not maintain Portsmouth in its full role as a dockyard and home for the Navy, which it always has been by tradition and always should be? It is a marvellous harbour, and I am honoured to go through it several times a week. Portsmouth is totally committed to the Royal Navy and all that goes with it. It would be a sad day if we allowed Portsmouth to be run down to the extent envisaged originally.