HC Deb 16 January 1979 vol 960 cc1480-1
11. Mr. Cryer asked

the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment his Department makes of the facilities required to switch a proportion of production for armaments to peaceful purposes.

Dr. Gilbert

Our industrial and support capabilities are currently fully utilised and I expect that to remain the case for the foreseeable future. There would consequently not appear to be any need at present to study what might be the implications of a programme of conversion.

Mr. Cryer

From my right hon. Friend's answer does it not appear that the Ministry of Defence does not devote any of its considerable resources to examining the possibility of switching from production for mass or minor extermination to peaceful purposes? If the Minister is really serious about implementing the Labour Party policy of reducing expenditure on defence, surely even a tiny proportion of the Department's resources should be devoted to assessing the necessity and possibility of switching to peaceful production. Should the Government not examine, for instance, the important initiative by the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards' combine? Should not the Ministry, as a gesture of support for the Labour Party, at least examine that proposal.

Dr. Gilbert

As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence is well aware of the proposals of the Lucas shop stewards' combine. The Department of Industry, in which my hon. Friend has had experience, has been examining those proposals and encouraging the management and staff of Lucas to discuss them.

I must tell my hon. Friend frankly that the prime function of the Ministry of Defence is the defence of this country. The other considerations raised by my hon. Friend are extremely important but they are not primarily matters for my Department.

Mr. Blaker

If it is easy to generate production for peaceful purposes why, after the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) was in office for several years, are there still nearly 1.4 million unemployed?

Dr. Gilbert

Many of us deplore the extent to which less developed countries spend such wealth as they have on weapons for military purposes, but at the recent United Nations special meeting on disarmament, most of the resistance to proposals for reducing global sales of arms came from the less developed countries. It is sad, but it is a fact.

Mr. Cronin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only serious obstacle to a large reduction in arms expenditure by this country is the overwhelming and increasing superiority of the Russian armed forces in Europe, which can be explained only by a potentially aggressive intent?

Dr. Gilbert

I do not wish to speculate about the intentions of the Soviet Union in the terms used by my hon. Friend. But it certainly is true that we have our present defence bill because of the situation behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. Britain, with others, has taken the lead in trying to negotiate mutual and balanced force reductions. If we can achieve them, there is hope that we can reduce the arms bill, which must be in the interests of everybody.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is not the reason for the arms bill to maintain peace without surrender?

Dr. Gilbert

There is nothing that I can usefully add to what I have already said.