HC Deb 03 May 1983 vol 42 cc5-6
4. Mr. Roy Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what recent assessment he has made of the effect on the United Kingdom's conventional defences of the decision to buy Trident.

Mr. Heseltine

On present projections, our spending on conventional forces will be substantially higher throughout the period of Trident's procurement than it is at present.

Mr. Hughes

Does that not mean that the Royal Navy will be ill-equipped and, indeed, sorely pressed to fight any conventional war in the future? Is it not a travesty that we can engage in such lavish expenditure when reports from the Falklands indicate that our troops there suffered from trench foot and that we were unable to supply them with such basic items as boots?

Mr. Heseltine

Of course I am as anxious as the hon. Gentleman to learn the appropriate lessons from the Falklands war. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should show concern for the detail of conventional force expenditure when the policy to which he is committed would wipe out £4,500 million a year from defence expenditure.

Mr. Nelson

Will my right hon. Friend consider the proposition that an error of judgment under successive Governments in the 1960s effectively lowered the nuclear threshold by relying completely on the nuclear umbrella and giving insufficient priority to the conventional equipment programme? Will my right hon. Friend please bear in mind that many of us place the greatest reliance on this and successive Governments completing the procurement programme set out in recent White Papers?

Mr. Heseltine

I support my hon. Friend's general conclusion. We want to raise the nuclear threshold and ensure that the best possible conventional equipment is available to our armed services. That is one of the reasons why this Government have increased the level of defence expenditure as they have. As this Government know, and as the last Government knew, there is no escape from the fact that behind that conventional force we shall need nuclear deterrence if we are to provide a credible deterrence to the Soviets at every level.

Mr. John Silkin

Is the Secretary of State aware that the real umbrella for NATO is and always has been the conventional British fleet, which he and his predecessors have sought to cut? Is he aware, for example, that for the price of Trident we could obtain 24 Invincible class carriers or 21 hunter-killer submarines? Moreover, is he aware that there was no agreement in 1951 relating to weapons? He is quite wrong about that. The agreement was about bases, and bases alone.

Mr. Heseltine

If there is an agreement about bases, one cannot very well use the weapons systems on those bases unless that is covered by agreement on the weapons. If the right hon. Gentleman will cast his mind back to just before polling day 1979, 'when the Conservatives were elected, he will recall that the Labour Government's views were clearly set out in the NATO communiqué, in which the Labour Secretary of State for Defence stated the Government's views. I will quote briefly the Labour Government's views about their nuclear commitment to place the defence debate in context. The Labour Secretary of State with his NATO colleagues said: Ministers reaffirmed that NATO could not rely on conventional forces alone for credible deterrence in Europe; and that, without increasing dependence on nuclear weapons or prejudicing long-term defence improvements in conventional forces, it would be necessary to maintain and modernise theatre nuclear forces. That was the Labour party's policy when in power.