CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

STATE OF THE ROYAL NAVY (FRONT BENCH) – 26 February 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: If I had to put a subtitle to this debate, it would be “The Mystery of the Phantom Fleet”. We have been told repeatedly today, as we have been told previously by none other than the Prime Minister – so it must be true – that we are engaged in the largest shipbuilding operation for many a long year.

I have been looking into the Government’s record on ordering ships, because that is what we should be concerned about. It is not so much the question of what ships are coming into service today and have done during the past few years, but those that we can expect to come into service in the future because they have been ordered in the course of the present time.

If I asked hon. Members how many ships had been ordered by this Government in the past five years, how many would they say – half a dozen, a dozen? If they were a little sceptical, they might say only three or four. Well, I can enlighten the House: the answer is one – an offshore patrol vessel is the only warship to have been ordered by this Government in the past five years.

Let us look back at the Government’s orders during the entirety of their time in office. During that period, they have ordered 16 warships, consisting of six Type 45 destroyers – originally there were supposed to have been 12, then eight and now six, and there are grave fears, as we have heard, for ships seven and eight – four landing ships, two survey ships and four offshore patrol vessels, including HMS Clyde, to which I have already alluded. Of those 16 vessels, 10 may be described as major units. However, nearly all were ordered some years back.

The Government are talking about a great shipbuilding programme; could they mean the future carriers? All I can say to them is that I would like to help them out at this point. They should get on with it, place the order for the carriers and we will do our bit to carry forward their tonnage and certainly agree that the Government have that great shipbuilding programme under way. However, the Government show no sign of ordering the carriers.

Let us compare that with the last eight years of the past Conservative Governments and what was ordered in the way of warships then. It does not quite compare to one offshore patrol vessel: two ballistic missile submarines, three nuclear-powered attack submarines, nine frigates – including one, HMS Grafton, that this Government sold for a pittance when it was only nine years old – seven minehunters, two oilers and a survey ship. If I stopped at that point, one would think that a pretty good record by comparison, but I have not even mentioned the largest warship in the current Royal Navy, the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and the two assault ships, HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, for whose coming into service the Government are happy to claim credit. However, the ships were, of course, ordered under the previous Conservative Government.

Although 28 ships may indeed have come into service, we have to ask ourselves what future generations will say about the ships that will come into service as a result of the orders placed by this Government? There is, however, an even more serious matter than the cuts in warship numbers – to which I shall return if possible in the limited time available – that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Woodspring [Shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox] mentioned in relation to the Prime Minister’s comments about the level of the defence budget. I have the table showing the percentage of gross domestic product represented by the defence budget since the Government came into office. When they came into office, it went from 2.9 to 2.6 per cent., to 2.8 per cent., to 2.7 per cent., 2.7 per cent. again, to 2.5 per cent., 2.5 per cent. again, to 2.6 per cent., to 2.5 per cent. and then 2.5 per cent. again. One might say that that was a nice, steady, constant level, except for the fact that we have engaged in two major conflicts in the past few years. We now gather that the Prime Minister thinks that we should include the cost of those two major conflicts in our comparisons of defence spending. If the cost of those conflicts –

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: No, I am afraid that I will not. The hon. Lady has intervened a great deal, and kept my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Tobias Ellwood) out of the debate. I have no hesitation in saying no to her.

When we engage in war-fighting, the Government must find the extra money in the Treasury reserve. If they are not prepared to do so, they should not undertake to engage in conflicts. The future of the Armed Forces is being mortgaged to pay for current campaigns. That is unacceptable and irresponsible.

Let me return to the question of what the Strategic Defence Review said would be done, and what was actually done. The SDR laid down the number of warships required, which was cut from 35 originally not to 32 but to 25, as we have heard. May we have a categorical assurance from the Under-Secretary when he winds up that there is no proposal to mothball another six warships of the frigate and destroyer class, and to reduce the number of frigates and destroyers from 25 to only 19?

The Minister of State referred with a considerable degree of pride to a letter that he had written to me about the readiness of ships and how they can be kept at different stages of readiness. He was happy to say that he regarded that as a model that people should rush to the Library to consult. I found only one point of real interest in that letter: he said that there were currently six major vessels in the Royal Navy of destroyer or frigate level or above that were at a state of low or very low readiness – a state in which they could reasonably be described as mothballed. Of those six ships, four were in refit, and one was HMS Invincible, which we know has been placed into mothballs. Which is the sixth ship? A frigate, a destroyer or an even more important ship is in a state of low or very low readiness, and we want to know its name today. Clearly, it is not being refitted, so I presume that it is being mothballed.

In the extremely limited time left to me, I shall refer briefly to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), and the hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and for Portsmouth, South (Mike Hancock), all of whom are desperately concerned about the future of Portsmouth Naval Base. I say to them, as I do to the Government, that changes made for short-term reasons, whether to face current threats or budgetary restraints, must always be made in as flexible and reversible a way as possible. It is therefore absolute folly for the Government, because they have felt constrained to cut the number of ships way below the total that they said was necessary to fulfil the duties of the fleet, now to turn around and close one of our three Naval Bases. Just as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North (Doug Henderson) was right to defend keeping the nuclear deterrent because of the uncertainties of the future in respect of nuclear threats, it must be right to keep the basic infrastructure of three Naval Ports, however much we scale them down, to face the uncertain, unknowable threats of the future, which might require us not to be dependent on a single Naval Base in the South of England.

Much more could be said, but I only have time to make one final point, which relates to the admirals. I do not envy either the current First Sea Lord or the previous one. The Government may try to convince themselves that there is a rumour mill and that stories are got up by the press, but those of us who know the Royal Navy know that the admirals are desperately worried about what is being done to their Service. They are even more worried about the failure to order the carriers, which were the ramp used to make them accept the other cuts. That cannot go on; we need answers from the Government.