HC Deb 26 January 1982 vol 16 cc735-6
6. Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has prolonged any previously announced timetable for the purchase of equipment for the Armed Forces.

Mr. Nott

Timetable changes in a large and diverse procurement programme costing up to £6 billion will always be necessary, but the main features of the programme envisaged in the Defence White Paper—Cmnd. 8288—stand.

Mr. Miller

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the trend of questions by the Opposition, service in the Armed Forces provides valuable jobs for those who wish to serve their country and that the equipment they use provides valuable jobs in our industry? Does he realise that there is uncertainty in our defence industries arising from the stream of releases about cancellations and prolongations? Will he therefore take an early opportunity to restate the position on defence procurement and thus reassure both industry and those who serve in the Armed Forces?

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend is right. The professionalism and dedication of our Armed Forces are admired throughout the country, and we should be proud of them.

On procurement generally, we shall spend more in real terms with British industry in the next financial year than we did this year, and this year we are spending more than we did last year. My hon. Friend is right to point out that there will have to be adjustments—perhaps changes of a few months—to some programmes. Changes are inevitable in such a large programme—amounting next year to about £6 billion—but, as I have made clear, the strategy set out in the White Paper that was published in June remains. I believe that all the major programmes there will be maintained.

Mr. George

How many aeroplanes are available for the air defence of the United Kingdom? How does the Secretary of State's recent announcement regarding Tornado affect the air defence variant of Tornado? If that is likely to be delayed, how does he square that with the oft-repeated charges made by the Conservatives in Opposition that our air defences were grossly inadequate?

Mr. Nott

The air defence version of Tornado is hardly affected by the reduction in the peak deliveries from just over 60 aircraft to 44 aircraft. That reduction will affect the strike version of Tornado more than the air defence version, which may be affected by a month or two, but little more than that. Like the hon. Gentleman, I regard the air defence of the United Kingdom as of the greatest importance. We have considerably enhanced the situation and agreed to run two Phantom squadrons into the 1990s.

That is a new decision. We intend to arm 72 of our Hawk aircraft with Sidewinder missiles. The huge programme for improving the ground environment, such as radar and other devices for the defence of the United Kingdom, continues. We are concentrating more attention and resources on that area.

Mr. Speed

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the 1980 White Paper contained an intention to purchase new mine-sweepers for the Royal Naval Reserve? Two years later there is still no sign of those mine-sweepers, which are desperately needed to replace the ageing fleet. Wile n will they be produced?

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Royal Naval Reserve urgently needs those mine-sweepers. I hope to begin placing the orders in the next financial year.

Mr. Snape

Is it not a fact that, thanks to the Secretary of State's last announcement, the bulk of the bill for the Tornado programme will have to be paid in the late 1980s? How does the right hon. Gentleman envisage paying the immense bill not only for the 385 Tornado aircraft on order for the Royal Air Force but for the ridiculous, nonsensical and expensive Trident project? The bulk of the expenditure on that project will be due at about the same time.

Mr. Nott

The bulk of the expenditure on Tornado is being met now. In the next financial year the Tornado programme will cost the Ministry of Defence budget about £1, 000 million. The peak expenditure profile will occur in the next few years. Expenditure will be tailing off by the mid-1980s. The Tornado programme as a whole is infinitely more expensive than the Trident programme as a whole. We are talking about a total programme cost of about £11¼ billion for the Tornado. That huge programme is proceeding successfully.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recession has caused his Department's budget problems, because of the early delivery of a wide variety of equipment, and that the flexibility of his budget should be increased to allow him to encompass the problems that he has mentioned? The example of Tornado springs to mind.

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend is right. The principal. problem facing the defence budget is that, due to the recession, Ministry of Defence contractors deliver equipment earlier than they would otherwise. That has to be fitted into a tight annual cash limit. More flexibility from one year to another would enormously benefit the management of defence resources and make it much more efficient. More flexibility would be a great plus towards looking after the programme.

Mr. Marks

Has there not been delay in equipping and maintaining our forces because of the takeover and closure of factories? For example, has not Polaris maintenance been delayed because of the closure of Laurence Scott and Electromotors, Manchester?

Mr. Nott

I am not aware of any such delays. Polaris is constantly on patrol and has been for the past 15 years. I am not conscious of any problems such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. If he has a particular point to make, perhaps he will draw it to my attention.