HC Deb 11 March 1980 vol 980 cc1137-9
11. Mr. Alan Clark

asked the Secretary of State for Defence by how much defence spending has exceeded estimates in the current year.

Mr. Pym

As my hon. Friend will now know spring Supplementary Estimates of £68 million have been presented to Parliament in respect of Defence Votes.

Mr. Clark

As there was a cumulative underspending of £700 million during the period of the Labour Government, my right hon. Friend has a good deal still in hand, has he not?

Mr. Pym

That is right. The Government have put the cash limits up by £549 million. We came pretty close to the mark. The amount of money for which we have asked Parliament for authority to use if necessary represents rather less than ½ per cent.

Mr. Newens

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a need for economy in defence expenditure? If he is unwilling to comment at this stage on whether the Government have decided to reduce to four the number of submarines to replace Polaris, will he say what other economies are in view? Or do the Government not accept that there is a need, in the present situation, for reductions in some of their more grandiose plans for increases in defence expenditure?

Mr. Pym

We think two things. The situation that faces us requires us to spend more, rather than less, on defence. However much we may dislike that, it is the fact. Secondly, in an organisation as vast as defence, including the Services and civilians, and all the work in which they are involved, there is always scope for cutting out waste. There are always ways in which things can be done more efficiently. That campaign is going on vigorously within my Department. It is entirely right that this should be so.

Mr. Dover

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that some of the overspending has taken place in the Royal ordnance factories? Will he confirm that several of those factories, including that at Chorley, Lancashire, in my constituency, have profitable export orders and are doing well for the United Kingdom?

Mr. Pym

No. I do not think that those are contributory factors. There have been a number of contributory factors. It is remarkable that, on a budget of this size, we have come near to hitting the target. The difficulties of meeting a cash limit exactly have been recognised by the House through its Select Committee on Expenditure, which recommended that my Department should continue its efforts to bring about a degree of flexibility between financial years. I am engaged in doing that. It seems a more logical way to conduct our finances than try to get some exact figure at the end of each year.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Why should the Defence Ministry, alone of all the spending Departments, have overspent its cash limit when we are spending a greater proportion of our gross national product on defence than any of our NATO allies? Why, in those circumstances, should we contemplate buying an additional replacement for Polaris when we are already getting cruise?

Mr. Pym

The overspend this year is less than the overspend last year by the Labour Government.