§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Frank R. White.]
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to open this debate on the subject of the Royal Air Force. Courtesy requires that my first words should be words of welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force who has recently taken on that task. He and I have crossed swords across the Floor before. I seem to remember an occasion when I was able to offer him a trip on a sludge-dumping vessel. I hope that nothing he says or does in his new office will cause me to regret that he did not take advantage of that offer. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will set himself standards in his office and in the House of which we shall have no cause to complain.
Having said that, I must say in general to the Government Front Bench that this, the last in the series of debates on defence matters this year, comes at the end of a season which has had some unhappy features. I refer not merely to the areas of political disagreement which are inevitable between the two Front Benches as the Government's policy now stands, but to a degree to the unwillingness shown by Ministers in the Defence Department to listen to the debate. I am sorry that once again the Secretary of State appears unable to be with us.
§ The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. William Rodgers)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is very sorry that he cannot be present. A series of NATO meetings is taking place, and his attendance at that important international forum is made more complicated by the present problems in the House. My right hon. Friend has been commuting from London to Brussels all this week. I know that he would have wished to be here, but it was 1687 a difficult choice between conflicting duties.
§ Mr. Onslow
I accept that, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his frank statement. However, there have been previous occasions when my right hon. Friends and I believed that the reasons for the Secretary of State's nonattendance were not so compelling.
Another reason for the unsatisfactory nature of this series of debates may be their format. It does no good that Ministers speaking for the individual Services for which they are responsible should hold back from the House until then matters which should have been in the defence review. A particular case in point is the reorganisation of the command structure of the Army in which there were matters which should have been in the defence review but which we did not learn about until the Army debate. I very much hope that the Minister responsible for the RAF will not tell us today information which should have been available to the House in the Defence Review.
I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will not fall into the trap, into which his colleagues from the Army and the Navy both fell, of padding out his speech with warmed-up stuff which the House heard in the same debate last year, if not from the same lips. It is not necessarily the fault of Ministers. If they are new to the job, they may not know all that has been said before. But I hope that those responsible for writing Ministers' speeches will note this. It is nobody's function to waste the time of the House by making once again statements which are on record and do not need to be repeated time and time again. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have no padding in his speech. If he does not know what padding is, I shall tell him if he produces it.
I want at the start to touch on two specific points which I have raised before in this series of defence debates, both of which have a bearing on the day-to-day morale of members of the RAF. Then I want to consider wider matters of longer-term and strategic importance touching particularly on the future equipment and rôle of the RAF and also on its part in the whole system of our defences.
I do not apologise for taking matters of morale first. In many ways we have 1688 a special duty in the House, whatever party we belong to, to give a priority to people who serve the Crown in a capacity which denies them any political outlet. This responsibility must be discharged in any debate such as the one we are having now.
The Minister will already know of my anxiety about my first topic, which arises from the number of accidents which have tragically happened to RAF aircraft in recent months. I gave notice that I would raise the matter in the defence debate. On 1st April, I told the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force that there was a genuine worry about the possibility that some of therecent, and tragically fatal, crashes may have been caused, indirectly if not directly,".— [Official Report, 1st April 1976; Vol. 908, c. 1609.]by pressure of economies in expenditure on training sorties flown by RAF pilots. I told the junior Minister then that I hoped that he would look most seriously into the situation and that when we came to this debate would be able categorically to assure us that he had looked into the matter and satisfied himself that there was no such connection.
Since then, unhappily, there has been a further serious accident, on 30th April, when there was a mid-air collision between two Gnat aircraft and a total of four RAF pilots were killed. The House would be right to express its sympathy with the relations of all those who lost their lives in all the accidents which we are now considering. My concern in raising the matter is to do anything I can to ensure that there are no such avoidable accidents in future. If there are factors in them which are avoidable, it is essential that we should identify them.
In answering questions I put to him after that accident the Minister was kind enough to give me a reply which is printed in Hansard of 17th May, tabulating the accidents which had caused fatalities over the past three years. According to my information, there is an inaccuracy in that answer. The hon. Gentleman may be able to correct it now if action has not yet been taken to correct it: I am not aware that it has. The accident on 19th January in Cheshire was a mid-air collision between two Harrier aircraft. It is shown in the table 1689 as having involved only one aircraft although both aircraft were single-seater types and both pilots were killed.
It is the matter of mid-air collisions which particularly causes me concern. Whatever else may be said about the tasks which are put upon the RAF in training in peacetime, they most certainly should not involve the danger of mid-air collision.
I am told that the manoeuvres which were being carried out on 19th January and on 30th April were relatively routine. The pilots were not inexperienced. This inevitably raised the question as to why these tragic accidents occurred. I heard it suggested that the cause may be the insufficient flying time allowed to individuals to enable them to carry through their task in a way which does not involve unacceptable pressures. We have a right to know whether that is so and, if so, to demand that it should be changed.
I recognise that security considerations have always precluded Ministers from making announcements in the House or elsewhere about the amount of flying time which front-line pilots are able to put in. If the Minister takes refuge behind that today, I suppose that I cannot criticise him. But will the Minister at least tell us of the percentage cuts in flying hours which resulted from the implications of the defence review? The figure that I heard suggests that it may be a substantial amount—perhaps as much as 20 per cent. in flying time over one month. If that happens, and if the tasks on the pilot remain the same, it is clear that he must try to cram into one sortie the same amount of work which in previous conditions he was able to take at a slower and more relaxed pace, and therefore presumably at a safer pace.
I pose those questions in those terms, subject to the Minister being willing—I hope he is—to give us a full and frank account of the situation as his inquiries have revealed it to be. If the Minister says that there are areas which have still not been cleared up, that inquiries are still proceeding and that no firm finding has been made, I shall have to accept that. However, I ask that he should at least assure us that he is satisfied that prima facie there is no general pressure 1690 of that kind and that when the inquiries are completed he will give us a full statement.
The second point is an issue, of literally domestic concern to men and women in the Services. I refer to the problem of the Service man who owns his own house. The matter was one which I raised, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) in the Army debate which took place in the House on 6th May. In that debate I asked some questions of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army, to which, I am sorry to say, he has not so far replied.
I was disappointed that he had no time to touch upon the matter in his speech, so much so that I wrote to the Secretary of State on 18th May. I said how disappointed I was. I asked him specifically to assure me that he was concerned to obtain the fairest possible treatment for all members of the Armed Forces who owned their own homes and that he would initiate a thorough investigation into all aspects of the matter as they affected his departmental resposibilities. I regret that I have still not received an answer to that letter.
What is the Ministry doing to protect the interests of the Service man house-owner as affected by the current operation of the rent legislation? At that time I cited—I have come to know of more examples since then—cases where Service men posted overseas or elsewhere in the United Kingdom were suffering financial loss as a result of being unable to let their houses to a satisfactory, or any, tenant.
Alternatively, Service men suffer personal hardship when they are obliged to leave their wives and families behind in the United Kingdom so as to keep the house in occupation. That is an intolerable state of affairs. I believe that the Department agrees. I want to know what is being done about the matter, even though the prime responsibility may not rest with the Ministry of Defence.
Defence Ministers will be able to disclaim direct departmental responsibility for the Rent Acts. Nevertheless, the Government are involved in the matter as it affects servants of the Crown. Something must be done about it.
1691 That is by no means the only matter in respect of which the Service man householder is placed at a disadvantage as a result of legislation introduced by the Labour Government. Another example has been the subject of correspondence between the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), who kindly sent copies of the correspondence to me.
We find the subject worrying. The exchange shows the degree to which the situation as it now prevails has damaged the entitlement of Service men to mortgage interest relief on houses which they are buying on mortgage and which they are no longer able to occupy. I possess a copy of a letter from the Under-Secretary which is dated 26th May and which I should like to read, in part, to the House. The passage reads:The restrictions on mortgage interest relief imposed by the Act are causing much concern to Service men who own their own homes. Officials of the Ministry of Defence have discussed the general problem with the Board of Inland Revenue and we are, at the present time, making inquiries amongst Service house owners to establish the extent of the problem. In the course of the discussion, however, the Inland Revenue indicated that a wide group of house owners in many occupations are affected in the same way and, in their view, it would be inequitable to treat Service men differently from other house owners in a similar position.Despite our representations on the subject, you will appreciate that the question of amending the provisions of the Act rests with the Inland Revenue.In those circumstances the Under-Secretary prudently—but of course properly—passes the correspondence to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for his attention. That is where the ultimate responsibility lies. We may have the opportunity to ensure that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury explains the policy to us at the Report stage of the Finance Bill. My hon. Friends and I may put down an amendment which will have a practical effect in alleviating the position of the Service man house-owner. We shall look for active support from the Minister.
The Service man house-owner is in a special position. He may be posted overseas, often at short notice, in the service of the Crown. He must go. He cannot say "Hang on a minute; I cannot 1692 let my house and I shall suffer as a result". He cannot negotiate. He is not even in the advantageous position of civil servants who are posted overseas. The civil servant is often housed overseas at no cost. He does not pay for fuel and light. He is given a free garage. That is admitted in the documentation, some of which the Minister will have seen. Therefore, the loss of tax relief for the civil servant's unoccupied house is partially or wholly offset. That does not apply to the Service man, who must pay for the accommodation which he occupies.
We must also take into account the capital gains tax situation. A Service man house-owner who finds a satisfactory tenant and lets his house is in danger of forfeiting his right to claim it as a principal private residence if he later sells it. That is a serious situation about which we require serious answers when the right moment comes—even if that moment does not occur tonight and we must wait for the Report stage of the Finance Bill.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)
I recently raised with the Treasury the question of capital gains tax chargeable to a Service man who sells his house and moves to another area. The Treasury indicated that it was prepared to lay an order before Parliament to take the Service man out of the area of capital gains tax. That should therefore encourage my hon. Friend on the other matters which he so rightly raised.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that encouraging news.
This is a serious debate, and we must discuss serious matters. But I look forward nevertheless to contributions in the context of our discussions today which will certainly appeal to the sense of humour of the Royal Air Force—an attribute for which the Service has always been well known. I refer to the question of the Scottish air force. I shall not, however, devote any great time to it. The constituents of some Members of Parliament may find it difficult to take seriously the prospect of a collection of variable-geometry, tartan-covered, hot-air balloons, commanded by Monty McPython, which is about as far as most of us may imagine the Scottish air force ever going. If they want to add to the 1693 gaiety of the RAF in this way, who am I to prevent them? But if they are greeted with loud laughter, they have only themselves to blame.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
At one level, of course, I completely agree that it is a matter of mirth and ribaldry, but, on the other hand, some of us think that the people who propose this could in certain circumstances be very near political power. We should make no mistake—if there were to be 36 or more Scottish National Party MPs, negotiations would have to begin, in my opinion, for independence. Before that happens, should not the Scottish people be absolutely clear and left in no doubt what a separate air force means?
§ Mr. Onslow
I have no intention of standing between the House and the speech that the hon. Member will make, and to which we shall look forward. My own half-Scottish ancestry leads me to believe that nothing turns a Scot off so much as someone making himself ridiculous. If the Scottish National Party chooses to make itself ridiculous, well and good. It will be judged thereby, to the benefit of us all.
Before turning to more serious matters, there is one other minor point on which the Under-Secretary could usefully tell us something. That is the policy that his Department is pursuing about historic aircraft. There have been some changes lately in location and so on which have concerned a number of people. There is still anxiety, for instance, about the remaining Comet I aircraft, the only one left, which I understand is at present in RAF possession. Although I do not expect the Under-Secretary to spend a good deal of time on this today, it would be helpful at some stage to know his Department's policy.
The Under-Secretary is in a real sense the custodian of an important part of our history. If we look back on that history with pride, it is right to ask the Under-Secretary to show us that he is honouring his obligation today. Equally, although we are looking back with pride for that moment, for the rest of my short speech I am afraid that I shall be looking forward with great anxiety.
I want to come at once to the effect of the Defence Review cuts on various aspects of the Royal Air Force's work. I hope that the Under-Secretary and his 1694 hon. Friends will accept that nothing which has happened and nothing which they have said over the past year has done anything to diminish the concern which we then expressed about the future of the RAF. They have no title to assume or assert that they have satisfied us, their critics—whether in the House or outside. We remain as doubtful, as critical and as anxious as we ever were, and in some respects subsequent events have made us more anxious even than we were a year ago.
My first point concerns the so-called "tail", the support—the first candidate, it now seems, for any Service cut. In particular I want to ask the Under-Secretary to let us have some justification for the merger of the Training and Support Commands which was not, I think, mentioned in the 1975 defence review but which was "announced recently", according to paragraph 84 of Chapter I of this year's White Paper. This is a major step and we need some justification for it.
In saying that, I am not merely expressing an opinion of my own. I am prepared to quote—and shall—from the speech made by the Chief of Air Staff recently at Eastbourne. I shall come to that speech again in a moment, but in this context I want to quote what Sir Andrew Humphrey said about support:It is nonsense to talk as though such further reductions could be made in support areas without damaging our operational capability. An operational aircraft is of no use at all without weapons and spares and maintenance facilities, and above all without expert and enthusiastic men to back it.That comment, which most of the House will fully endorse, shows that cuts in support are bad both for efficiency and for morale.
So too are cuts in works services. I do not think that it will add anything to improve the enthusiasm or efficiency of the Air Force or the civilians who work for it to know that there will be further postponements in promised improvements in their living and working conditions. But the important point is that what Sir Andrew Humphrey has said clashes markedly with what is said in paragraph 79 of Chapter 1 of the Defence White Paper:…savings are being found in the support area involving reductions in spares and engineering support, communications and radars, and works expenditure.1695 If that means what I believe it to mean, we must conclude that continuing damage is being done to the operational capability of the Air Force, above and beyond that which is openly admitted and avowed in this year's White Paper. We need to be reassured on that, because it is very important.
Turning now to the "teeth", the front line, the House must ask whether the RAF will be given adequate equipment for the tasks that it is expected to perform. That question brings me first and at once to the Nimrod aircraft. Again, I hope that the Under-Secretary will be more forthcoming on the Nimrod than his colleague, the Under-Secretary for the Royal Navy, was. Although the latter was prepared to admit that the Nimrod was critical to the anti-submarine rôle, which is after all a function of naval warfare, he did not seem to be anxious to say much more about the contribution which Nimrod would be able to make after the cuts which have been made.
§ Mr. Onslow
I see that the Under-Secretary for the Navy delicately shuffles off responsibility again on to his hon. Friend. But this is a joint operation, and both Ministers must know a little about it. It is no good the Under-Secretary for the Royal Navy nodding wisely and leaving it to his well-briefed colleague. He had better brief himself on this as well: otherwise he will not be able to discharge his responsibilities.
§ Mr. Onslow
I know that I have to speak loudly to get through thick skulls but if the hon. Gentleman has heard me loud and clear, I shall now turn down the sound slightly.
The need for Nimrod manifests itself all over the place, not merely in home waters but on the far flanks of our defence interests. It manifests itself in the Mediterranean. It is a vital contribution at the moment to Britain's contribution to the CENTO alliance. CENTO did not get much of a mention in the Defence White Paper, but there was recently a 1696 CENTO conference here in London. On that occasion, I understand—indeed, I believe that I heard it myself—the Prime Minister said that this country attached importance to our contribution to the flanks and that the Government believed in the continued capability of CENTO.
I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that, and I should like to be reassured that what he said, if I had it right, squares totally with what is said in the Defence White Paper, in Chapter II, paragraph 19:Part of the Canberra and Nimrod force based in Malta will remain declared to the Central Treaty Organisation … for the time being ".How long is "the time being"? Will a time come, at the pleasure of Mr. Mintoff or at the command of the Treasury, when the importance which this country attaches to CENTO will have to diminish and when the Nimrods will be withdrawn from the Mediterranean? Where will the fine words be then?
Can the House be told what is meant? What is the extent of this country's commitment to CENTO and, in particular, how long will those Nimrods be available? We have, topically, an example of the need to be able to redeploy into the Mediterranean when change occurs there. Therefore, have we made a response, and if so what has it been, to the recent Soviet Fleet build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean? We know that NATO is worried about this, and that the Americans are worried, and we know that the French have done something about it. I believe that I saw somewhere that, now that the cod war is over, we can spare a frigate or two to go to the Mediterranean and back up the poor old Gibraltar guard ship, which must be feeling lonely at times.
But if this is an example of the unexpected being replaced by the unexpected, it is still right to ask whether the Government have adjusted the conclusions of their former review to take account of what may well turn out to be a permanent increase in the level of threat against us, and one which must therefore deserve a long-term response if we are not just to turn our backs and walk away.
There are now two questions on equipment which I wish to put. First, 1697 what is the current attitude of the Government on the AWACS decision, and how do the Government see the Nimrod capability, which this country possesses at present and could develop, fitting in with whatever decision may be taken? This morning's newspapers confirm that a decision has been taken at NATO level to postpone a decision on AWACS for six months. I do not necessarily regret that. It may be a very sensible decision to have taken. But the House must agree that we have now reached a point where a clear statement of the Government's attitude is necessary.
Here I talk more or less directly to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State, because so far all he has been able to tell us is that it is a very difficult problem. We believe him. We do not dissent. We already know that. We had got that far and would like to go further. We feel we have a right to be taken into the Government's confidence.
If this very difficult problem is one about which they have no desire to make any contribution in debate across the Floor of the House—the right hon. Gentleman indicates assent to the idea that this should be debated. In that case, I hope he will start by taking an early opportunity to make a full statement on which informed debate can be founded, because it is a most important matter involving very large sums of money and major questions of future capability; and I have no doubt many of my hon. Friends will be speaking at greater length on the subject later in the debate.
§ Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)
Before he leaves the question of Nimrod and its various uses, will my hon. Friend say whether he has seen a statement reported at noon today by Admiral Hill-Norton on behalf of NATO pointing out the extreme shortage of facilities for the protection of our merchant shipping, particularly round the Cape route, in which, of course, this is an extremely useful aircraft? That must not be overlooked.
§ Mr. Onslow
I know of Admiral Hill-Norton's anxiety on this score and my hon. and gallant Friend will also know that it is one which is not necessarily confined to this side of the Atlantic, because I seem to recall having recently read a very clear exposition in the American 1698 Air Force Review of the vital importance of maintaining a capability to defend Western interests outside the narrow central European front. The distinguished American General who wrote the article in question was quite specific in saying we could find the whole situation crumbling round our ears if we concentrated all our attention on the European land mass and a possible confrontation on the East-West German border, and allowed Soviet forces a free run on our flanks which would set up a stranglehold from which we could not recover.
I want next to come to a question which I believe is the most important before us today so far as the Air Force is concerned—the multi-role combat aircraft, or the MRCA as it has so long been called. Although the Government now want us to call it the Tornado instead, I shall continue to speak of it as the MRCA and I believe Ministers and others will go on calling it that for some years. I am delighted to see that I carry the Minister with me on that. What a remarkable day it is!
The crucial rôle of the MRCA has been constantly emphasised by Ministers and commentators on defence matters and by the Government's defence advisers in public statements. We know that without the MRCA there can be virtually no credible air contribution to NATO by this country and that the absence of the MRCA would do far-reaching damage to the air contribution of our West German partners and to the capability of the Italian Air Force. But in asking for a full statement today I must go beyond expressing my concern about the mention of a cut of one-third in the planned rate of deliveries, in paragraph 64, Chapter 1.
On the underlying politics of the matter, I put bluntly to the Under-Secretary the question: what happens to the MRCA if the next Italian Government pulls out? The national split on the project is Britain 40 per cent., West Germany 40 per cent., Italy 20 per cent. What are we to do with 80 per cent. of an aircraft if the Italians decide to pull out? And it could well be that the complexion of the next Italian Government, and the pressures to which they feel themselves subject, are such that they decide they cannot go ahead?
1699 Is there a contingency plan that would enable the project to be completed by ourselves in co-operation with the West Germans? From the expression on the Minister's face I do not feel I am going to get an answer to that question, but that does not stop me from pressing it, because if there is no contingency plan, there will be absolutely no alternative but to turn to the Americans and buy something else instead. Such a decision would have very serious consequences industrially, financially and in all kinds of other ways, not least in terms of employment in this country, and in Germany—and in Italy too, where a great many jobs are also tied up in the MRCA. While I sincerely hope we can continue to rely on the full co-operation of our Italian partners in a project which is absolutely critical to the whole capability of NATO, which must recognise that there is a powerful Communist element in Italy which takes a view which is critical of NATO itself. I hope very much we can get an answer on that.
Incidentally, on the subject of new aircraft, I hope we can have some hint from the Under-Secretary on what is happening about the replacement requirement for the Harrier and Jaguar, mentioned by the Chief of Air Staff in a speech before Christmas which the Minister has problably seen and on which the House is entitled to some information. The Chief of Air Staff said this was a matter which was being closely studied. Some of us may think the answer is actually to replace the existing Harrier with a rather better Harrier and not go too far down the path of committing ourselves to something totally new and speculative.
Earlier I quoted another speech of the Chief of Air Staff, and to this I return. At Eastbourne on 15th May the very distinguished serving officer who is to be the next Chief of Defence Staff made a remarkable speech at the annual conference of the Royal Air Force Association, from which I quote the following passage:The pace of the Russian military build-up is alarming. You must have seen and heard plenty about their naval build-up and probably quite a lot about their army build-up, but the build-up of Russian air power is just as significant if not more so. Russia is building no less than 1,800 military aircraft each year—that is enough to replace our whole 1700 front line every six months or so. Well over half these are high performance combat aircraft, and more than 800 of them are of the very latest types—aircraft which are distinctively more offensive in character and capability than their predecessors.Russia is spending more on military research and development than the whole of the Western World put together. So we must expect in the future to be faced not only with forces of increasing strength and of increasing capability, but also almost probably by some alarming technological achievements. While Russia builds up her military strength we, and not just this country but many of our Allies too, have been reducing our defences steadily since 1957. And our air power has been reduced much more severely than either our strength at sea or on land.But the importance of air power is not reducing; on the contrary it is increasing.Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Humphrey went on to say:If the quality of the Air Force is good, its quantity must give us a great deal to worry about ".I remind the House that this was a public speech by the Government's most senior adviser in this field, who is about to become their most senior adviser on all defence matters, as he is to be the next CDS. It comes on top of the public statements by other equally eminent serving officers.
The present Chief of Defence Staff, Field-Marshal Sir Michael Carver, has said our defences have been cut to "absolute bedrock"—a phrase which the Secretary of State much dislikes. Admiral Sir Terence Lewin has reminded us vividly of our weakness at sea, and another very distinguished airman, Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Smallwood said on television on 19th May:The RAF has reached its minimal figure now".It is a unique situation when senior officers of all three Services are sounding a public alarm about the state of our defences, the way the balance has moved against us and the increasing threat we face. The Government have done their best to throw dust into the eyes of the public on these matters, and, I suppose it is understandable that they should do so, particularly when one asks where the Labour Party stands on defence.
We are all familiar with the kind of amendments moved by Tribune Group Members below the Gangway opposite in defence debates. They make a powerful case for the proposition, without 1701 necessarily using these exact words, that they would sooner be red than dead. It is a proposition which might be more effective were it not for the fact that we are fairly sure that most of them are red already.
However, I do not wish to dwell on that, especially as none of them appears to be here for this debate. I want, instead, to refer to the "Labour Programme for 1976", a remarkable document printed in full in Labour Weekly on 26th May. Under Defence, which comes 16th in the order of political priorities, it is seriously proposed that the Labour Party should commit itself to gutting two of the three Services—for it is a fact that the proposals relating to each of the Services would effectively gut them: and the assumption in the document is that the Labour Party will not be content unless it guts two of the three Armed Forces of the Crown.
Ministers may do their best to put up dust again today, but they may be forced to stand on this document at the next General Election if they wish to remain members of the Labour Party.
§ Mr. Onslow
I am delighted to hear the Minister of State's robust words, but we shall have to judge him when the time comes. Saying "Not me, mate" must be taken a little further if it is to become, as it should, "Not in my manifesto, thank you very much".
Labour Weekly is in the Library, but the Secretary of State's reply to the proposition advanced by the Labour Party's National Executive Committee is not there. That is not my fault. I asked in a Question on 21st May for the reply to be put in the Library, but received a very dreary answer that it was not normal practice to publish in the Official Report correspondence between a Minister and the General Secretary of the Labour Party.
I had hoped the Secretary of State would also be more robust in these matters, and would not choose to hide behind the skirt of precedent. But if he will not tell us what was in his reply, I hope somebody else will. We do not want to have to rely on leaks. We want the full text of the reply in good time for a full debate.
1702 Normal practice or not, this will not do when we have the policy-forming machine of the Government, which has the privilege of running this country, seriously suggesting propositions which would have the effect of leaving us defenceless. Normal practice be damned—let us have this out.
I hope the Under-Secretary of State will respond. I do not care how blunt his language is. We already know that the Government are committed to cuts in defence which will total at least £6,000 million between 1975–76 and 1983–84. Indeed this is an obvious underestimate because the figures for 1980–81 to 1983–84 are clearly understated. It is not surprising that nobody has any confidence in the Government's defence policy.
And what happens when these ridiculous propositions are advanced in Labour Party documents? Ministers are told they can agree to differ. The Prime Minister says dismissively "There, there, children. Go and play, do not bother me now. We shall come back to that later." But this is not said with a sense of reproof or with a firm denial that such a proposition could ever be the policy of the Labour Government. It is not surprising that both at home and abroad there is a total absence of confidence in the Government's attitude to defence.
If the Labour Party is not willing to declare its long-term stance, we can and will. We have made our attitude clear. I do not hesitate to repeat it, because repetition is the stuff of politics. I repeat with pleasure the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) on 19th May, speaking not far from here, when he said:It is therefore the firm policy of the Tory Party that we will strengthen our defences when we return to power. This is a necessity and we will strengthen our defences because we believe that the defence of our country and the defence of freedom come first and are far, far more important than anything else.That statement represents the considered and united policy of the party to which I am proud to belong. It corresponds with the wishes of the vast majority of people of this country, whatever their age and status, and it corresponds to the desires of our allies and millions of other people outside this country who depend upon our defences for their security.
1703 It is also the most important and practical way of proving our sincerity and showing that we really mean what we say when we pay tribute, as I do now, to the work of the men and women in the Armed Forces of the Crown and, on this occasion in particular, to those of the Royal Air Force.