§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Lord Shackleton asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ What are their proposals for the future of hydrographic surveying by the Royal Navy and particularly on the replacement of the ageing vessels in the existing hydrographic surveying squadron.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)
My Lords, we recognise the importance to the Royal Navy of a continuing specialist hydrographic capability. The current specialist hydrographic vessels will be replaced, as this becomes necessary, with chartered vessels with naval crews or parties embarked as appropriate.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister who has declared the Government's proposal to destroy one of the glories of the Navy; that is, the hydrographic service. What steps is he taking to replace or otherwise to encourage hydrography in the future, and in particular the officers who are trained hydrographers? The real tragedy is that there will be the destruction of some of the most valuable employees of the Crown.
My Lords, the noble Lord is well known for his knowledge of the subject. The Navy greatly appreciates the importance of the hydrographic service, and the hydrographic service will continue. The point in question is the most cost effective way of delivering a survey capability which is important for the continuance of that hydrographic service. I can reassure the noble Lord that, as a result 142 of the careful scrutiny of cost effectiveness, which is continuous in the Ministry of Defence, a further examination of the issue is in train. However, during the course of that examination the overwhelming importance of the contribution of what I might call White Ensign status will be taken fully into account.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the mounting importance of British hydrographers in the Antarctic? Is he further aware that two or three years ago an Argentinian ship was sunk using old-fashioned charts and that there is now increasing sea-borne tourism in the Antarctic? British hydrographers are regarded as leaders in the field and are widely recognised by all nations. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that that is not forgotten?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend whose knowledge of such matters is well known. He will be aware, as I am, that the cache of Admiralty charts means that up to 60 per cent. of all charts being used by seafarers world-wide are Admiralty charts. That is sufficient corroborative evidence of his contention and the Navy has no intention of undermining that most important capability.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are important aspects of maritime defence survey which can be carried out only under the White Ensign by serving naval officers? Will he assure the House that the Royal Navy will retain that capacity?
My Lords, the noble Lord will be well aware of the great advantages which were enjoyed by the mine counter-measures vessels during the course of the recent Gulf conflict when they were able to call upon hydrographic vessels manned by Royal Naval crews flying the White Ensign. They enabled those vessels to work in tandem with the mine counter-measures vessels in the Gulf to considerable effect, which helped not only us but our American allies. We are well aware of that and the review which is now in train will reflect a number of factors which must be taken into account, including that one.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, is the noble Viscount trying to tell us that the hydrographic service will remain as is, staffed and conducted by naval officers flying the White Ensign, the only difference being, subject to the review which he mentioned, that the vessels may be chartered rather than owned by Her Majesty's Government? Is my understanding clear and precise on this matter?
My Lords, that is not the situation. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will be aware, the situation is that a review is taking place to find out the optimum formula for the future of hydrographic surveys. It is perfectly conceivable that some of the crews will not be Royal Navy crews, but I must ask the noble Lord to wait until I am in a position to announce the results of that review. It is equally possible that they will be 100 per cent. Royal Navy crews or that the balance will be somewhat different.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, will the noble Viscount tell us when he is likely to make that announcement? Apart from anything else, the hydrographic service has been an enormous money spinner in past years. Can the noble Viscount give us the revenue from commercial sales last year and what plans the Government have to increase it?
My Lords. I am unable to give the noble Lord a precise figure for earnings, but I shall undertake to write to him on that as soon as possible. As regards the first part of the question, I am fully aware of the difficulties which uncertainty creates in any situation, particularly in times of great change, which the Ministry of Defence is enduring at present. Therefore, the answer to the first part of the noble Lord's question is that the announcement will be made as soon as is practicably possible.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, is the noble Viscount therefore saying that the hydrographic service, which all sides of the House agree has been extremely valuable, is liable to be privatised? Is that what the Government seriously have in mind? If, in the end, he is prepared to make an announcement—and I shall wait patiently for it—will he make it quickly so that your Lordships avoid what will certainly be repeated questions from my noble friend Lord Shackleton until he gets his way?
My Lords, I shall greatly welcome repeated questions from the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton. He will certainly improve my knowledge of the subject in doing so and, I suspect, that of your Lordships. It is untrue to say that I have just announced the imminent privatisation of the hydrographic service, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, well knows. I must ask him to contain his impatience. I am as impatient as he is for the result of the review. As soon as the review is complete, I shall make an announcement to the House and the noble Lord will have an opportunity to comment.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, will the noble Viscount continue his efforts on behalf of the hydrographic service? It is apparent that he has tried but has not entirely succeeded. I should like him to bear in mind one possible solution; namely, that ships should be taken up for trade and should be operated by the Merchant Navy. If that is to be the solution, it is crucial that they operate under the White Ensign so that the hydrographic officers have the prospect of a career in the Navy. That is crucial for the future.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. It is highly unlikely that we shall build specialist ships to replace the existing hydrographic fleet. Therefore, bare boat chartering or taking up from trade is a likely option. The nature of the crew is still a matter for study. It could be all Navy, all merchant seamen or a mixture of both. Different conditions could apply in different ships. I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that there should be a broad career structure for people who are interested in hydrography. Another study has been commissioned into the future career structures of 144 officers in the Royal Navy. It may be possible to broaden even further the base from which recruits are taken for the hydrographic service as a result of some of the conclusions of that study.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, will the House have a further opportunity to discuss this matter before a final decision is taken?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has already undertaken to raise this matter at repeated intervals. I suspect that your Lordships will need no help from me to raise this important matter. I look forward to your Lordships' initiatives in that regard over the coming weeks and months.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, does not our hydrographic service have some bearing on our future in the deep sea mining industry? Bearing in mind that the United States of America was the only country which did not sign the international agreement, will the noble Viscount agree that, if we do not handle this matter carefully and if we lose ground in relation to the hydrographic service, we may pay a very high price in future?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean, to the extent that he and I are both well aware of the enormous potential of effective hydrography. It is our intention to obtain the maximum from our hydrographic service, which will continue. The point at issue is what is the most cost-effective way of delivering the tasks which the hydrographer is asked to perform.