HC Deb 27 April 1982 vol 22 cc718-9
20. Mr. Newens

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will reconsider the priorities in naval spending in view of the developments in the Falkland Islands.

Mr. Nott

As I have already said, the main threat to the United Kingdom is posed by the Soviet Union and her allies, and the response to this threat remains our overriding priority. We therefore plan to proceed within the general framework outlined last year, which includes maintaining a capability to deploy as necessary outside the formal boundaries of the Alliance.

Mr. Newens

How on earth does the right hon. Gentleman expect to inspire any confidence in the future defence policy of the country when he is refusing, at this stage, to admit, even in the light of the Falkland Islands crisis, that he got any of his priorities wrong, when the whole country realises that we would not be in the present mess if he had got them right? Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the vast expenditure on nuclear weapons is completely unjustified and that, in the light of the equivocation of the United States, vast numbers of people in this country now regard it as utterly wrong to rely on cruise missiles, under American control, based in Britain?

Mr. Nott

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that no other nation in the world—and in that I include the two super powers—could have put to sea a task force of this size in three days. There is nothing in our plans that would prevent such a force, with two carriers and an equal number of more modern frigates and more modern weapons, from putting to sea in 1985 and 1990.

The hon. Gentleman criticised our expenditure on nuclear weapons. My answer is that without a defence against nuclear blackmail by the Soviet Union there would be no point in having a task force of this kind.

Mr. Moate

Has this crisis not demonstrated above all the extent to which our naval strength depends upon our fleet of nuclear hunter-killer submarines? As that fleet, which is to be enlarged, depends essentially upon adequate refit and refuelling facilities, will my right hon. Friend confirm at least that he is looking again at all the arguments that were deployed so strongly in favour of keeping our existing refit facilities?

Mr. Nott

I agree that the necessity for a surface fleet is absolutely clear. I also agree that our fleet of SSNs has been a key factor in this crisis. Our fleet of SSNs will grow from 12 to 17 during this decade. My hon. Friend is right. As I have often said to him, we will have sufficient refit capacity at Rosyth and Devonport to handle our fleet of SSNs.

Mr. William Hamilton

If the right hon. Gentleman's record is so impeccable, why did he offer to resign?

Mr. Nott

I should be the last to claim that my record is impeccable, so I am sure that hon. Members will cheer at that. Of course my record is not impeccable. I have lessons to learn from this incident, just as anyone else has. I have learnt three lessons: first, that the readiness of combat stocks and spares is crucial; secondly, that the readiness of sufficient fuel is crucial; and, thirdly, that the ability to use civilian assets taken up by the Department of Trade in an emergency of this kind is crucial. Those are some of the lessons that we have learnt, and of course there will be others.