HC Deb 02 December 1980 vol 995 cc119-21
9. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will give his revised estimate of arms expenditure for 1980–81 and 1981–82.

Mr. Pym

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 24 November.

Mr. Allaun

Does the Secretary of State wish his Government to go down as the Government who slashed everything except arms spending? Following the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), is not arms spending being increased at 2½ per cent. per annum in real terms, at the very time when housing is being cut by 48 per cent.?

Mr. Pym

If we are able to achieve the maintenance of peace throughout the 1980s, that, I think, will be an achievement for which we shall like to be remembered.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House something about the observance of cash limits within the defence budget in the current year? We all realise that there have been particular problems owing to the accelerated delivery of equipment because of the recession, but cash limits were substantially over-spent by his Department last year.

Mr. Cormack

So what?

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Can we be sure that rather more stringent criteria will be applied in the current year?

Mr. Pym

As my hon. Friend knows, I think that in the context of defence the strict annual cash limit system is not a sensible way of doing our business. As some of my right hon. and hon. Friends know, I have tried to get it altered. I do not suppose that I shall succeed, so I have to live with it. My hon. Friend has identified the problem that faces us this year. There has been the quicker delivery of defence equipment because of the shortage of orders on the civil side. As a result, we are paying bills much more quickly than either we or industry expected. We are taking every step that we can to keep within the cash limit, including restrictions on training in all three Services. Bearing in mind the way that things are going in the recession, it is difficult to think that this year we shall avoid overspending. I am doing everything possible to avoid that.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Secretary of State indicate clearly that his commitment to the Trident programme is irrevocable? In view of his assertions about job creation, will he comment on the statement made last week by one of his officials that the programme would secure thousands of new jobs on the Clyde?

Mr. Pym

As far as I am concerned, the programme is irrevocable. The fact that it produces additional jobs is of secondary consideration to the importance that it plays in our defence capability. Over 70 per cent. of the programme will be spent and made in Britain by British industry. That is an important consideration.

Mr. Amery

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the French Government are to increase their defence spending next year by 6.7 per cent.? If the French Government, who have been notoriously favourable to detente policies, believe that to be right, are we not in danger of underspending on this vital aspect of national policy?

Mr. Pym

In comparison with practically every other country in the Alliance and in Europe, we shall do rather better. When we compare figures between one country and another, it is vital that we know the basis upon which the figures are made. This is a complicated area. There is no doubt that the French are going to spend more, but so is the United Kingdom. It remains to be seen whether we or they will spend the most or increase the most. However, we are of one mind, namely, that in the present circumstances the need for a greater defence effort is there, unfortunately, and we intend to play our part in it.

Mr. Joel Barnett

I revert to the right hon. Gentleman's reply to the supplementary question of the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) on cash limits. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that any overspending this year on his cash limits will be set of against next year's cash limits?

Mr. Pym

Yes. That is the system under which we operate, and that will apply.

Mr. Alan Clark

Did not the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) about accelerated deliveries, and so forth, exemplify the extremely important role of defence spending in our industrial prosperity? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if spending were cut in accordance with the recommendations of the Labour Party, that would have a grave effect on our industrial capacity?

Mr. Pym

My hon. Friend is right. If many of the advances made by Labour Members for the Government to spend less on defence were heeded, the consequences in terms of employment in many of their constituencies would be rather severe.

Mr. John Evans

Is the Secretary of State saying that he does not believe in cash limits as an economic exercise, or is he merely telling us that he does not believe in cash limits for the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Pym

I was saying that in relation to the Ministry of Defence, which is obviously unlike any other Department, I did not think that cash limits were the most delicate or suitable instruments with which to control our cash, or that they were the best way of doing so. That is known by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by all my colleagues in the Government. They know also that I am afraid that I shall probably lose my struggle to get the system altered. However, I shall go on trying.