HC Deb 04 December 1957 vol 579 cc385-90

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Minister of Defence if he will now make a full statement about the proposed changes in the Western Isles guided-missiles scheme.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, answer Question No. 101.

In the light of the changes in defence policy announced in the White Paper last April, and as part of the general drive for economy in public expenditure, the Gov- ernment have re-examined the plan to provide facilities in the Hebrides for Service trials and training with guided weapons.

This review has confirmed the need for a range in the Hebrides for surface-to-surface rockets. On the other hand, it has shown that it would now he feasible to carry out most of the necessary Service firings with air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles at the Ministry of Supply rocket establishment at Aberporth, and the balance at the Army gunnery range at Ty Croes, in Anglesey. The Government have, therefore, decided to adopt this course and to provide in the Hebrides facilities for firing surface-to-surface rockets only.

This revised plan will require rather less land in the Hebrides than was originally proposed, and will enable the construction programme there to be greatly curtailed. This should appreciably reduce the disturbance caused to the islanders; and arrangements are being made to explain the position to them as soon as possible.

Some additional instrumentation and certain other facilities will have to be provided on the Welsh ranges. After allowing for this, the overall effect will be to bring down the capital cost of the whole scheme from about £20 million to about £5 million. There will also be substantial savings in running costs and in demands upon manpower.

Mr. MacMillan

In thanking the Minister for the care with which he has prepared the statement that he has just made, may I ask whether I may convey on his behalf the thanks that the Government forgot to extend to the people in the Western Isles for the patience with which they have borne the terrible confusion that this exercise in waste and muddle has caused in the area? Can I now assure my constituents that there will be no further radical revisions; that this is the final decision of the Government on this scheme, which has had such a record of muddle and confusion all through? Will the right hon. Gentleman now do as I asked him a fortnight ago, that is, approach his colleagues in the Government and ask them to be a little more generous in developing schemes of real constructive value to a community which they seem to have discovered only when they required its land for defence purposes?

Mr. Sandys

I think that the hon. Member knows that I have for a long time had very much at heart the need to try to bring industry and constructive activity to the Highlands and to remote parts such as the Western Isles; but that, of course, is rather outside the scope of this particular Question.

I do not accept that there has been a great deal of waste here—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Well. £15 million has been saved as a result of the change—[HON. MEMBERS: "Saved?"] £15 million. Up to date, about £½ million has been spent on works, almost all of which will be needed for the surface-to-surface rocket range, with which we are proceeding.

Sir W. Anstruther-Gray

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that, provided defence considerations are not prejudiced, this saving of £15 million is very welcome indeed?

Hon. Members


Mr. G. Brown

May I press the Minister to tell us what the saving is? Presumably, if he had fixed at £100 million the figure for the range not now required for defence purposes, he might have claimed a saving of £85 million. Does he think that that is a genuine saving? Is it not nonsense to put that forward as a saving? Is not the real reason that the Minister and his predecessor decided that defence considerations were so overriding such a short time ago that they could not even give time for a proper inquiry, and that what has changed that enables them, equally vehemently, to say. "We did not need it all; in fact, we need only £5 million worth"?

Mr. Sandys

A reduction in expenditure which would otherwise have been incurred I regard as being a saving—[Interruption.] We need not argue about that. Quite a number of factors have made this change possible but, in the scope of a supplementary answer, I will mention only two.

First, there is the curtailment of the R.A.F. weapon training programme resulting from the planned reduction in the fighter force announced in the White Paper. Secondly, there is the dropping of certain Ministry of Supply development projects, including development projects connected with the more advanced types of fighter which would have followed the P.1—also announced in the White Paper—which have thrown up spare capacity at Aberporth.

Mr. Bellenger

The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, be aware that very shortly he and his Service colleagues will be presenting Estimates to the House. Can he give us an assurance that he will have a very careful review made of those Estimates, so that the House will not be asked, in a month or two, to vote considerable sums which later it will be told will not be needed in their entirety?

Mr. Bevan

More savings.

Mr. Sandys

As the right hon. Gentleman says, I hope that there may be savings.

Mr. Shinwell

Can the right hon. Gentleman say which of the seven Ministers of Defence we have had in this Government and in the preceding Conservative Government is responsible for this misguided scheme? Can he give an assurance that it was not any of the Ministers in the last Labour Government?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also say whether the Ministry of Supply bears any responsibility for this scheme? If so, is that not a very substantial reason why we should consider whether the Ministry of Supply is any longer of value?

Mr. Sandys

That is rather an involved question, but I certainly would not, without notice, absolve the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) of any responsibility.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

May I try, once again, to bring the Minister to his feet on one issue which is of more than ordinary importance to the local people? I refer not only to the disturbance which has been caused in the minds of the people locally, but also to the hardship to some who have been forced from their homes and land; to others forced from their jobs; and to others forced to sell their livestock, without any hope of restoring their livelihood in the foreseeable future.

Is the right hon. Gentleman going to do anything to restore the damage which has already been done there? It is no use saying that there is no waste. The right hon. Gentleman has wasted the livelihood of many of these people, and he has not even said one word in mitigation of the offence.

Mr. Sandys

I hope that one of the effects of this change of plan will be, as I said in my statement, to reduce the extent of the disturbance to the local life of the community, about which there was so much protest when the scheme was announced. Where crofters—and I think that this is the main issue here—have suffered loss as a result of the scheme, even though they may have suffered loss in connection with some area of land which will not now be required, they will be entitled to put in their claims for compensation to the Scottish Land Court which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is sitting on this matter at present.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Minister aware that opinion in Scotland was told that the original scheme was absolutely essential for national security? Is he now saying that that is entirely inaccurate?

Mr. Sandys

I can only imagine that the hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said in reply to an earlier question, when I explained that as a result of the changes in defence policy, announced in the Defence White Paper last, April, the development programme of the Ministry of Supply—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen to the answer; he asked me a question. The development programme of the Ministry of Supply was in certain respects reduced, with the result that spare capacity was thrown up at the rocket range at Aberporth; and also, as a result of the reduction in the size of the fighter force, the number of firings which it was necessary to carry out for the purposes of training that force was obviously also reduced.

Those factors, and a number of other factors which I cannot go into at this moment, have made it possible to accommodate the Service firings for surface-to-air and air-to-air weapons at Aberporth, supplemented to some extent by the Army gunnery range in Anglesey, and, therefore, have made it unnecessary for us to proceed with all the work in the Hebrides.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is not the truth of this matter that this is a strategic victory over the Minister of Supply and the Secretary of State for Air? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied, if the original £20 million was a waste, that the £5 million will not be a waste, too, and that it would not he better to transfer the £5 million to the Secretary of State for Scotland for developing the Highland areas?

Mr. Sandys

I think that the announcement I have made shows what sweet relations exist between myself, the Service Ministers and the Minister of Supply.