Royal Navy: Staffing - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 5th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 2:53 pm, 5th December 2017

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the naval manpower ceiling required to ensure that all ships, air squadrons and submarines in the planned naval programme are fully staffed.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the Government are committed to investing in growing the Royal Navy for the first time in a generation, utilising the department’s whole-force approach to deliver defence needs. The naval service will continue to adapt to ensure that it has the correct number of personnel to operate, maintain and support all its ships, submarines and air squadrons. This whole force includes service personnel, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, civil servants and contractors.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer—I have to say that my flabber is totally gasted. The bottom line is that there is a real issue with manpower within the Royal Navy. A ceiling is needed which allows some flexibility to recruit people of various types so that you have a little bit of spare so that you can man ships. The fact that we have laid up one Type 45, one Type 23 and HMS “Ocean” and that we are swapping Royal Marines for sailors shows that there is a real problem within our manpower. Is there any intention at all to honour the pledge given by the coalition Government to up the number above 400 towards the 4,000 limit, so that we will then be able to man our ships? And why have we stopped production of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines monthly personnel statistics and the pocket brief, so that we cannot see what is happening?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, statistics are published on a regular basis but it has been decided that there is very little virtue in doing it month by month. On the noble Lord’s first question, he will know that the 2010 SDSR predicated a manpower figure for the Royal Navy that has now been superseded by about 1,600 personnel. There will be 400 more, measured against the current complement, by 2025. So we can genuinely talk about a growing Navy. We can also talk about a growing budget. There has been huge investment in the Royal Navy in the past few years, and that has gone not only into personnel but into cutting-edge equipment as well.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, is it not the case that members of the Royal Naval Reserve can very often be deployed in support of their regular colleagues in the Royal Navy, often in specialist roles, to the overall advantage of the system?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My noble friend is absolutely right. The maritime and, indeed, the RAF reserves are often used to provide individuals and small teams for specific roles, and their training is designed to integrate them with the regulars. In fact, my noble friend may be interested to know that there are reservists already serving on the offshore patrol vessels, supporting regulars, at the moment.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour

My Lords, as I am sure the Minister is aware, Plymouth—a city I know very well—is home to 700 Royal Marines. Speculation is rife in the city about a reduction in their numbers and their locations. What comfort can the Minister give those 700 Royal Marines about their future in the defence of our country?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I hope that the comfort that I was able to give the House in last week’s debate on the Royal Marines will have reassured many in Plymouth that there is no question of scrapping the Royal Marines. What is going on at the moment is a national security capability review, which is looking at numbers and capabilities and seeing how we can invest and spend our growing defence budget in the most intelligent way. But the ability to transfer personnel and equipment from ship to shore will remain highly relevant to the Royal Navy’s capabilities.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, what is the Minister’s view of the evidence given yesterday to the Public Accounts Committee by officials from his department, who said that more should be spent on defence, not least because of the adverse impact of the depreciation of the pound on the defence budget?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the depreciation of the pound is certainly an issue that we are wrestling with. To a certain extent, the Ministry of Defence hedges against currency devaluation but we cannot do that indefinitely into the future. We are protected to a large degree at the moment. But it is one of the reasons why we need an NSCR exercise such as the one going on at the moment, which is about not only investing in capability wisely but doing it in a cost-informed way.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, there has recently been good news about co-operation with the French on naval capability. Does the Minister anticipate any further developments of this sort, where we co-operate with our close allies?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Yes, indeed. One of our objectives is to strengthen our bilateral relationships, not only with the French but with Germany and other countries in Europe. But, as the noble Lord will be aware, the UK and France have had a long history of working together on operations and exercises, and the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force is a realisation of the commitment made in the Lancaster House agreement for our forces to train and operate alongside each other.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

My Lords, following the Minister’s answer just a moment ago about foreign currency exposure and the procurement of military equipment, would it not be sensible—in the light of recent, rather uncomfortable experience—to extend the period of that hedging to cover the full delivery and payment period for the relevant project at the time when the contract is signed and the project is undertaken?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Certainly, that idea is under consideration, but I am not qualified to make a judgment as to whether a particular form of hedging, or the timing of a hedging contract, is opportune. That is for more skilled minds than mine.

Photo of Lord Clarke of Hampstead Lord Clarke of Hampstead Labour

My Lords, in all this talk about cuts and the debate last week on the Royal Marines, is there any saving grace for the most famous military band in the world, the Royal Marines Band? Has the band been ring-fenced to make sure that this nation does not lose such a valuable asset?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sure all noble Lords would agree that the Royal Marines bandsmen are the finest in the world, alongside those of the other Armed Forces. But on a more serious note, I emphasise to the noble Lord that the stories that have appeared in the press about what options may be on the table are pure speculation at the moment. No decisions have been taken on any of those options.