§ 3. Sir Victor Goodhew
asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is now in a position to make a statement about the future of HMS "Invincible".
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)
I have informed the Australian Government that we wish to retain HMS "Invincible", and the Australian Defence Minister is now communicating our wishes to his colleagues in the Australian Cabinet.
§ Sir Victor Goodhew
Is my right hon. Friend aware that even those who were not critical of his recent statement on defence will welcome this indication of the Government's decision to maintain three aircraft carriers, which we hope will continue for the indefinite future? When the transaction is completed, will he encourage the Australian Government to order a British aircraft carrier with Harrier aircraft?
§ Mr. Duffy
Will the Secretary of State confirm that three aircraft carriers will be in service until HMS "Ark Royal" becomes available in 1985? Has he yet estimated the effect of the announcement to retain HMS "Invincible" 908 on the planned capacity at Portsmouth dockyard and on the number of redundancies among not only dockyard but naval personnel?
§ Mr. Nott
Recently, I announced that we would publish a White Paper in the autumn. In it we shall, of course, give the results of our consideration of naval numbers and of the future size of the dockyards following our reassessment of the ships that need to be repaired as a result of the Falklands campaign. At present, our plan is that there should always be two aircraft carriers operational. That means that we would need a third aircraft carrier in reserve, so that when one of those carriers is due for its first refit in the 1990s—HMS "Invincible" would be due for a refit in the 1990s—there would be two carriers operational in the Fleet.
§ Mr. Mike Thomas
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a thought to those of my constituents who built HMS "Invincible"? Will he consider a further through-deck cruiser order for the Tyne shipyards? In addition, will he step in and stop this humiliating public Dutch auction over the "Atlantic Conveyor" and give the men the work that they deserve? Is he aware that unemployment in that area exceeds 30 per cent.?
§ Mr. Nott
I am very well aware that Swan Hunter is short of work at the moment. If possible, we would be prepared to make some funds available from the Ministry of Defence budget to change the design of any replacement for the "Atlantic Conveyor", so that it could be used as a useful reserve asset for military purposes. These matters are under discussion. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will wish to say more about this issue in due course.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I allowed the Secretary of State to answer, but it was a very different question from that on the Order Paper.
§ Mr. Churchill
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the decision to retain HMS "Invincible". However, will there be three aircraft carriers in the active Fleet, or is one of them to be placed in reserve? Is the cost of retaining HMS "Invincible" to come out of existing planned defence expenditure, or has the Treasury shown a willingness to chip in?
§ Mr. Nott
As my hon. Friend knows, the Treasury is always helpful in such matters, but it is a little premature to decide how to finance the retention of HMS "Invincible". We shall have to give further attention to that in the autumn. We intend to have two, not three, aircraft carriers operational in the Fleet. The third aircraft carrier will have a standby capacity to ensure that we always have two carriers available in the Fleet when one of them is undergoing refit and to guard against the possibility of an accident.
§ Mr. John Silkin
The Secretary of State has rightly been careful to say that he has told the Australian Government that we want to retain HMS "Invincible", but he has been equally careful not to tell us the Australian Government's reply. Will he here and now undertake to give us a replacement if the Australians decide to keep HMS "Invincible"?
§ Mr. Nott
The right hon. Gentleman would agree that Mr. Malcolm Fraser's offer during the Falklands crisis to 909 allow us to keep HMS "Invincible", if we so wished, was extremely generous and helpful. I would rather leave the matter there for the moment. The Australian Cabinet knows of our wish to retain HMS "Invincible" and I do not foresee any problems in that regard. However, I am awaiting a communication on this subject from Mr. Sinclair.
§ Mr. Silkin
Obviously I do not want to prolong the issue, but did the Secretary of State see the statement in the Australian Free Press—I think, on the day that Mr. Sinclair came to London—in which Mr. Sinclair said that he wanted to retain HMS "Invincible"?