HC Deb 30 June 1986 vol 100 cc712-96 4.12 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger)

I beg to move, That this House approves the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1986, contained in Cmnd. 9763.

Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Younger

The provision of national security is the first task of any Government, and the defence plans of any responsible Government are bound to take a significant slice of the country's resources. It is important that those plans should be described and explained in detail, both to Parliament and to the taxpayer. As has become a well-established practice, this year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates" describes the nature and extent of the threat to the United Kingdom's security; sets out the policies of the Government and our allies in response; reports on the condition, strength and activities of the services; accounts to Parliament for the management of the defence budget and the Ministry of Defence; and provides a comprehensive range of background facts and figures.

However, national security depends to a very large extent on stability and continuity in defence policy. We must also move with the times. We must not only tailor our defence efforts to changes in the threat to our security; we must take account and advantage of developments in technology. Such changes can—indeed must—be based on continuity. A process of continuous upheaval and uncertainty could only reduce rather than add to our security. This evolutionary approach is graphically illustrated in successive statements from the Government. Their underlying theme is one of steadily improving defences within a consistent and stable framework of policy. Over the years, they have set out the essential background to our defence commitments and the rationale for the resources we devote to defence.

To hear some of this Government's less well-informed critics talk, one would gain the impression that our defences were on their last legs. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, defence has harvested the huge benefits that have flowed from the seven successive years of our commitment to the NATO real growth aim. We stuck to that commitment because it was imperative to repair the deficiencies that we inherited and to take account of developments in the threat we face. These developments are spelt out in successive statements. As the White Paper makes clear, Soviet military spending is accelerating. The Soviet Union has kept up its programme of modernising and improving its nuclear weapons, its land and air forces in Europe, and its increasing powerful navy. Unlike NATO, it maintains, and has dramatically increased, its ability to engage in chemical warfare on a large scale. Furthermore, Soviet weaponry is now growing in sophistication as well as in numbers: high quality is being added to sheer quantity.

NATO's response is well known and has been made very clear. We do not need to mirror the Warsaw pact's forces in every respect in order to preserve our own security. The NATO approach has been, and remains, consistent. It is the "twin track" of maintaining sufficient military capacity to deter aggression combined with realistic, balanced and verifiable measures of arms control. I shall return to arms control a little later in my speech. For the moment, I want to concentrate on Britain's contribution to NATO which, as the White Paper reminds us, is a formidable one, and second only to that of the United States. In every respect, things are incomparably better than they were when we first took office. We are better organised. We have carried through the radical overhaul of defence organisation begun by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his outstanding achievements in this area — and consolidated the improvements that have been realised in the management of defence resources.

Our service men and women are better rewarded. We have transformed their pay and conditions of service to reflect the esteem in which they are held by this Government and by society as a whole. We have better reserves and we are expanding their numbers, increasing their rewards, and widening the range of roles that they can perform. Further, the services are better equipped. Indeed, we are planning this year to devote some 45 per cent. of the defence budget to equipment.

The results of our concentration on more and better equipment are plain to see. Let me remind the House that in the last financial year alone we ordered four major and three other warships, 16 naval aircraft, Challenger tanks to equip a sixth regiment, six regiments' worth of Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicles, 18 battalions of Warrior and Saxon armoured personnel carriers, three regiments of the new multiple-launch rocket system artillery, and 130 RAF trainer aircraft. Among many other items, we brought into service 13 warships, as well as a number of smaller vessels, 21 naval aircraft, a regiment of Challenger tanks, two battalions of Saxon armoured personnel carriers, four batteries of air defence missiles, 48 RAF aircraft and much more, from small arms to Sea Eagle missiles.

Major decisions, which I shall he taking later this year, include the provision of airborne early warning, for which competitors are due to submit firm prices by 7 July, and a decision on the way ahead for our amphibious capability.

By any standards, our achievement over the past seven years has been impressive. The ending of our commitment to real increases in defence spending does not mean that the achievements are over. Our programmes to update and re-equip the armed forces will continue. But we have to be realistic. Real growth at that pace could not have continued for ever. As the statement makes perfectly clear, and as the Select Committee on Defence has noted in its report published last week, we anticipate a slight decline in the defence budget averaging about per cent. a year for three years, excluding the planned reduction in Falklands expenditure. We have enjoyed seven years of growth; we must now capitalise on the gains we have made.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) and his Committee on their report on the White Paper. Considering the speed with which they were obliged to consider the White Paper, take evidence on it, and draft their conclusions, the Committee has come up with a report that is a model of clarity and concision.

I should particularly like to thank the Committee for the realistic and balanced way in which it has addressed the question of matching programmes to resources. This is not a new idea, nor is it a technique of despair, only resorted to in a time of crisis. It should be, and is, the normal method of managing a large and complex budget that contains a variety of very different programmes.

This is the sensible and prudent way in which a responsible Government manage their affairs. Of course, from time to time it necessitates the taking of difficult decisions: it always does. We are perfectly prepared to face up to these. However, it would be quite absurd to exaggerate them and draw conclusions of doom and gloom. No such conclusion has any realistic justification.

Those who say that the budget must keep for ever going up and up if we are to have adequate defences are both wrong and unrealistic. Our defence budget is running at a level about 20 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1979. That is not all. Within that much larger budget, equipment has risen from 40 per cent. to 45 per cent. We spend a higher proportion of our budget on equipment than anyone else in NATO. Moreover, we are profiting substantially from our sustained drive to improve the output we get from defence spending. The White Paper draws attention to the remarkable increase in competition in the procurement of equipment. Two years ago, about 38 per cent. by value of equipment contracts were placed subject to competitive forces. The figure is now well over 60 per cent. Furthermore, only about 9 per cent. of contracts are now placed on the old cost-plus basis.

We are confident that the result of such greatly increased competition will be substantial reductions in tender prices and much better value for money for the Ministry, and for the taxpayer. As the Select Committee rightly observed, it is, of course, difficult to quantify the precise savings that we make. The reason should be obvious. In most cases it is hard to calculate precisely what has been saved, because nobody knows what we would have had to pay in the absence of competition.

Although I accept that the examples quoted in the White Paper, and in the Select Committee's report, are of necessity illustrative, they vividly show that the policy is biting. Thus, competition for the production of the Warrior armoured personnel carrier saved about £100 million, or 12 per cent. of the previously estimated costs. The introduction of competition for the supply of missile pallets, which we had previously bought noncompetitively, has led to the price being cut by half. We have saved 20 per cent. of the estimated costs of Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicles; £20 million of the costs of Upholder class submarines—and there are plenty of other examples.

Competition is not the end of our efficiency drive. We are continuing to transfer resources from the tail to the teeth — for example, about two thirds of naval manpower is now in the front line. Naval support staff numbers have been cut by about 6,000; the Army's "lean look" exercise is resulting in, increased efficiency and the RAF's programme of contractorisation is well advanced.

We have reduced the numbers of United Kingdom-based civil servants by 77,000 — about 30 per cent.—since 1979, and further reductions are planned. Ten years ago, there were 79 civil servants to every 100 personnel in the regular forces; five years ago there were 69, and today the figure has come down to 53. These reductions have not come about easily. As well as putting more work out to the private sector, the Department has had to work hard at improving efficiency in working practices and eliminating inessential tasks. I am sure that the whole House will agree that the success of our Civil Service in carrying out its tasks with great efficiency while reducing its numbers by no less than 30 per cent. is by any standard a remarkable achievement. It reflects very great credit on their skill and dedication, and I should like to thank them all, at every level.

Efficiency improvements are continuing to flow in. And they are not simply once-and-for-all measures. Their effects will be permanent, and will serve to benefit the country not just for the lifetime of this Government, but during those of our successors. Other factors are working in our favour. Falklands-related expenditure is continuing to fall; we are currently enjoying the benefit of lower energy prices; and defence is sharing the dividends of the Government's successful counter-inflation policies.

I trust that it will not have escaped the notice of those who like to lambast the Government with the supposed burden of Trident that, notwithstanding misleading newspaper headlines, the cost of that programme has substantially decreased in real terms. All these things are helping. Nevertheless, we are having to manage the change in our budgetary profile from several years of real increases to a few years of slight decline. This year, I have had to look very carefuly at our programme so as to ensure that commitments and resources are properly matched.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Does the right hon. Gentleman's argument apply to helicopters?

Mr. Younger

My argument applies to all the activities we undertake, as well as to ships, helicopters, and all other forms of equipment. Decisions on those will be announced when they are taken.

This scrutiny has been hard and realistic. I began it with no pre-conceptions. It is not yet complete—indeed, as I explained earlier, it is a continuous process. As I have assured the House, there is no question of having to withdraw from any of our major commitments or any major part of them. In order to manage the transition from real growth I shall inevitably have to take some difficult decisions.

We are having to take difficult decisions about 'order dates. Since the process of scrutiny is a continuous one, I cannot give the House a catalogue of final decisions, but I can give an indication of some of the decisions that flow from the exercise. In general, in order to minimise the impact on the front line, I have sought economies in the support and works areas, and in minor projects.

However, it has been necessary to go further than that. To take some examples, in the case of the Navy, we will not proceed with plans we had to retrofit new towed array sonars to type 22 frigates, which will continue with existing towed arrays. In the Army, we will not be proceeding with LAW mine, and we are reducing the provision for future mine systems. In the Air Force some adjustments are likely to the time-scale and production quantities for some weapon systems and, for example, the size of the second batch of Harrier GR5s—for which a quantity of long lead items has recently been ordered — is under consideration. A decision will be taken towards the end of the year.

The diversion of aircraft and weapons in support of the major sale of aircraft to Saudi Arabia will also have some temporary effect on the RAF programme and, in particular, will lead to a short delay in the build-up of the Tornado GR1 reconnaissance force.

As I have implied, other difficult decisions will be necessary. We will take these as and when we have to but, clearly, I shall have to take the greatest care when deciding on the size and timing of all orders for the foreseeable future. However, there is no question of wholesale deferrals. We shall take decisions, in the normal way, as they come up. For example, we attach great importance to the provision of effective self-defence for individual ships against aircraft and missiles. Our programme for enhancement of this capability has been continuing. Earlier this financial year we placed orders for a further seven Phalanx and Goalkeeper close-in weapons systems. We shall be issuing a preliminary inquiry this week to shipbuilders who wish to be invited to tender to build up to another four fleet minesweepers. Orders are likely to be placed next year. We are about to place a contract for the full-width attack mine fuse, which will dramatically increase the effectiveness of our barrier mines.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Everything that my right hon. Friend has just said has been good news—

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

What good news?

Sir Antony Buck

Yes; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that what my right hon. Friend said about new equipment was good news, because the hon. Gentleman is devoted to the Navy, just as I am. However, some of us are a little disconcerted about my right hon. Friend's comments on the towed arrays for the type 22. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the equipment that will be provided for the type 22 will make this rather expensive ship—these days all ships are expensive—fully effective, and that he is not being penny wise, pound foolish?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my hon. and learned Friend's strong interest in this matter. Of course, we would greatly have preferred to have the advanced capability towed array. It is one measure which we have been able to take to save money. There will still be an effective towed array, which has been proved in practice, but we shall have to forgo the improvement for which we had hoped.

Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)

My right hon. Friend has not said anything about the ordering of the type 22 frigates. Unless they are ordered soon, my right hon. Friend will not be able to keep his promise to keep 50 destroyers and frigates at sea.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks. If he will wait, I shall come to that subject later.

In addition to the formation of a 12th Armoured Regiment in BAOR, which we announced last year, the introduction of the Warrior armoured personnel carrier will permit us further to strengthen the capability of 1(BR) Corps by the re-mechanisation of 6 Brigade starting in 1988.

I appreciate the interest among many hon. Members on both sides of the House in the future frigate ordering programme. The House will be aware that we are currently considering tenders for follow-on type 23 frigates. Progress is being made in the negotiations, and I shall make an announcement as soon as I can, certainly before the recess. I reaffirm also that we shall be maintaining about 50 escorts in the destroyer-frigate fleet. Our shipbuilding programme is the biggest it has been in recent years.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I think that there is widespread support on both sides of the House for the idea that work should be provided for Swan Hunter, if that is at all possible. The Government have made a clear statement that the O2 of the type 23 sequence will go to Swan Hunter if its bid is competitive. In answer to parliamentary questions, the Government have said that they will judge that competitiveness on the basis of bids made by other yards for the sequence of boats from the O3 onwards. May we have an assurance that, if the Government have gone back to Swan Hunter's on its original bid for the O2 and invited it to change its final bid, that shipyard will not be allowed to change its bid for the O3 onwards now that final bids are in from the other yards?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. He is substantially right in all that he has said, but it is not quite right to say that Swan Hunter has been offered the opportunity to put in the best bid. The company has been offered the order for the type 23 frigate No. O2, provided it can match the price elsewhere. This decision was taken last year as a special gesture to Swan Hunter, which was disadvantaged by a previous decision, of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware. That is the position. At the moment, negotiations are proceeding with Swan Hunter. I hope that it is able to meet the conditions that we have put on the order and feels that it has been fairly treated in this matter.

Mr. Frank Field

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, by going back to Swan Hunter with information about the bids from the other yards for the 03 onwards, he will in effect have been telling Swan Hunter what the bids were for the other orders? It is therefore important that an undertaking is given that, now that final bids are in for the O3 onwards—not O2— there should be no revisions by any of the shipyards, including Swan Hunter.

Mr. Younger

Again I see the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is not quite an open competiton in the sense he has suggested. This is a special offer, if one likes to put it that way, to Swan Hunter for a special reason. It was given a special offer —if it could match the best price, it could have the order. There is no question of Swan Hunter being given any secret information from other yards. It is a question whether it can match that price. That decision may have been right, or it may have been wrong, but it was a clear decision. I hope that the House will appreciate that it was made in the best interests of Swan Hunter, giving it an opportunity to recover from what it regarded as an adverse earlier decision.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern of the principals of Swan Hunter that, as a follow-on yard, it will be disadvantaged with respect to the flow of information from the lead yard unless his Department takes firm control? The principals are concerned that they will have to pay for the information which would come from the lead yard for follow-on orders.

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend is correct. That is one of the concerns that have been expressed to us. We are negotiating on this matter with the company. Although I shall not say any more about those negotiations, I stress that the system of having a lead yard and different yards which build the follow-on ships and follow-on equipment is well tried. We shall try to ensure that it is fairly and properly applied, just as it usually has been in this case.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

I should like to represent the interests of another shipyard which is involved in this matter. Does my right hon. Friend realise that he must be even-handed in his dealings with all the yards? We all accept the idea of first of clubs, but from then on my right hon. Friend should not just accept one yard, giving it special treatment compared with the remainder. Many yards in the United Kingdom have the same problems of unemployment, and so on. My right hon. Friend must go a little further in reassuring the House of a "fair do". That is a simple concept.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. I draw a distinction between the special position of Swan Hunter and the type 23 frigate O2. The decision was taken last year because of an earlier decision elsewhere that the company would have a special opportunity to bid for the O2 on certain terms which I have described. As far as the rest of the ordering, except that order, is concerned, I assure my hon. Friend that there will be absolute fairness between the various yards which submit bids. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Younger

This must be the last time that I give way.

Mr. Brown

It is the last intervention, I assume, from the Labour side of the House. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many frigates he intends to order this year?

Mr. Younger

That would be to anticipate the announcement I hope to make before the summer recess. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate that announcement today, although he might hope that I shall.

The result of all our efforts will he a realistic programme that will allow us to maintain our present all-round contribution to NATO. The White Paper makes clear the scale and diversity of that contribution. Among our NATO allies, only the United States maintains a greater range of commitments. Furthermore, as the White Paper emphasises, none of our four main NATO commitments can be seen in isolation from one another. All are interrelated. All are irreplaceable. The elimination or serious reduction of any one of them would seriously weaken the Alliance.

We do not take the insular view that our security interests stop at our back door. Not only do we retain formal responsibility for the defence of our dependent territories but we have world-wide political, economic and trade links. We therefore have a legitimate interest in promoting stability throughout the world, and our out-ofarea capabilities and deployments make their own contribution to the security interests of the Alliance.

The House will know that a Royal Navy task group is currently circumnavigating the world and taking part in a series of exercises with our friends and allies. The task group has already visited Venezuela, the United States and Canada and has just completed a successful contribution to exercise RIMPAC in the Pacific. I am also glad to be able to announce today that HMS Illustrious, which was damaged by fire earlier this year, will be rejoining the group later this summer. On the final leg of the deployment, in November and December, the group will be involved in an important exercise in Oman, which will demonstrate our ability to respond rapidly to a crisis anywhere in the world by strategic air deployment.

Our all-round contribution gives this country a strong and influential voice in NATO. It enables us to play a leading part in all matters affecting our national security. It ensures that we have a major say in formulating NATO's policies. The White Paper illustrates this point. It describes the prominent part we are playing in promoting more and better equipment collaboration, both with our European allies and more widely within NATO. We also hold a central position in NATO defence planning, including, particularly, our strong support for efforts to improve the Alliance's conventional defences. As the House will be aware, Britain is the first country outside the United States to have received substantial contracts for research under the strategic defence initiative. Last week contracts were concluded worth over $14 million to British companies and research establishments. I am confident that more are on the way in the near future. This is, I think, a very encouraging start.

It is, after all, only six months since the memorandum of understanding that covers British participation was signed. This is a very short time in the context of the SDI research programme as a whole. There is a very long way to go in SDI research, and there are plenty of opportunities for other British firms, universities and institutions to join in. I hope that they will take advantage of the tremendous possibilities that exist.

I note, with some surprise, that Opposition parties are now committing themselves to oppose those contracts and the high-technology jobs that they will safeguard. I only hope they realise that their policy would result in the research programme for SDI continuing unabated with no participation for British industry, a drain of British skills to the United States, and no British influence at all in the conduct of the SDI research programme. Perhaps with that in mind the House will agree with me that the actions of today's Opposition make the Luddites of old like wizards of high technology by comparison.

The White Paper also reaffirms our belief in, and support for, effective measures of arms control. We have long emphasised that strong defence and realistic arms control go together. We have also set out very clearly what arms control cannot do. It is not an alternative to defence; and it is not a quick and easy route to better East-West relations. However, when both sides are prepared to negotiate seriously with the aim of reaching balanced and verifiable agreements it can achieve very real benefits. This is our aim and the West has on the negotiating table radical and serious proposals for achieving it — 50 per cent. cuts in the superpowers' strategic arsenals; total elimination of the whole class of long-range intermediate nuclear missiles; a global ban on chemical weapons, reduction in conventional forces in Europe, beginning with the crucial central front; and the introduction of a wide range of significant measures to improve confidence and stability in Europe. We hope that the Soviet Union is prepared to take an equally constructive attitude.

In recent weeks the Soviet Union has tabled a range of new proposals at the bilateral US-Soviet talks in Geneva. We would very much welcome it if that was indeed a sign that it was now prepared to take a more constructive approach. President Reagan gave a cautious welcome to the proposals in his Glassboro speech 10 days ago. I know from my discussions last week with the US Administration that they are considering them very carefully. If the Russians are now indeed ready for serious negotiations, they will not find lacking a positive response from the United States.

In the meantime, we support adherence to treaties and agreements that already exist. We applaud President Reagan's decision to dismantle older weapon systems to remain within SALT 2 limits; we urge the Soviet Union to respond constructively, and, as I stressed in the United States last week, we hope that both sides will continue to observe the SALT agreements in the future.

This country is directly involved in talks at the various forums for multilateral arms control at Geneva, in Stockholm, and in Vienna. Perhaps I can highlight just two points. The first concerns chemical weapons. At the Geneva conference on disarmament we are working hard for a verifiable worldwide ban on those dreadful weapons. We abandoned our offensive chemical warfare capability in the late 1950s. The United States has produced none since 1969. The Soviet Union has responded to that example of one-sided disarmament not by reciprocating, but by exploiting its 17-year monopoly to the hilt.

There is an important point here that needs answering. If there were any validity in the unilateralists' theory that one-sided disarmament would produce an equivalent response from the other side, the West's one-sided chemical warfare disarmament would surely have proved it. The Soviet Union has had no need whatever to produce chemical weapons for over 17 years, yet it has carried on regardless. Nothing could prove more clearly that one-sided gestures are futile, and that negotiations will succeed only when backed by strength. Those are the circumstances in which the decision has been taken for the United States to modernise its own chemical weapon stocks if no arms control agreement is reached. Our primary goal must still remain a global ban.

Secondly, the House will have noted that NATO has established a high level task force on conventional arms control to look at ways of strengthening stability and security in Europe through the increased openness and the establishment of a verifiable, comprehensive and stable balance of conventional forces at lower levels.

We welcome Eastern recognition of long-standing Western concerns about conventional disarmament in the Budapest statement of 11 June. While there are a number of questionable elements in it—such as the presumption that parity in conventional forces already exists in the whole of Europe—we shall be considering the Eastern ideas carefully, both nationally and in the high level task force. In the meantime, there is ample opportunity for the Warsaw pact's words to be reflected in a practical and positive way in the negotiations at Vienna and Stockholm.

The Government's approach to arms control, like our approach to the defence of this country's vital interests, is firm, logical, consistent and realistic. Not only the British people, but our allies, have the utmost confidence in our ability and willingness to defend western values and to secure peace with freedom in Europe.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the general area of arms control I should like to ask him about one issue he has not addressed—the British Government's attitude towards a comprehensive test ban in view of the test last week and the continuance of the moratorium. The British Government have always argued that their only objection to a comprehensive test ban is the need for adequate verification and that if that could be achieved they would certainly settle for a comprehensive test ban treaty. In view of the statements in recent months, which suggest that the Government are moving towards the American position —even if they could have adequate verification they still would not want it—could the Secretary of State tell us where he stands? Is it still Government policy to try to have a comprehensive test ban treaty?

Mr. Younger

I am glad to respond to that. I can confirm that it is still very much the Government's position to do everything we can to aim for a comprehensive test ban treaty. As long as that fails to be negotiated, tests have to continue in order to maintain the capability and safety factors of present weapons. Our ultimate aim remains unchanged, to have a comprehensive test ban treaty. It is still the case that verification and so on is the most severe obstacle to achieving that. I hope that it can be overcome as quickly as possible.

I referred earlier to defence as the prime responsibility of any Government, and I must return to that point now. It is far from easy for any Government to fulfil this requirement. It is necessary to allocate funds which could so easily be needed in other fields of government to face up to the reality of the various dreadful types of weapons with which we are threatened; it is necessary to choose priorities, which is never easy. But those hard facts have to be faced, and a Government with any claim to be responsible have to face up to them.

It is precisely in this respect that the present stance of all our Opposition parties falls so lamentably short as the amendments tabled to today's motion so amply and frankly demonstrate. It is bad enough that we face a so-called "alliance" which has two defence policies that are in complete conflict with one another. Liberals, on the one hand, wish to ban all nuclear weapons and many support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, recognise the danger of that and support a nuclear deterrent, but they do not know what, except that they will cancel the Trident programme. That shambles is only made worse by the current position taken up by their leaders—that as they do not know what to do, they must take more time to think about it. The plain fact is that there is no such time available. The decisions we took to initiate the Trident programme were taken in 1980 to fill a need in the mid-1990s. That is the sort of lead time which one has to face up to for highly complex products. In that matter, the alliance is simply left behind. It is too late to think about that now.

But the Labour party, which has at least taken up a position, has chosen one which would be gravely damaging to Britain and NATO, and, I fear, even more fatal to itself. Abandoning the Polaris fleet which is our ultimate defence now, and the Trident programme which will replace it, is a policy fraught with danger. The Labour party's policy would leave us with no deterrent to an attack by vastly superior conventional and nuclear forces, other than a big build-up of conventional arms, probably requiring conscription, which would not only be far more expensive than Trident but quite inadequate to redress the conventional imbalance that it sought to meet. Labour would add to the abandoning of Polaris and Trident, we understand, the removal of all United States nuclear bases from Britain. The effect of those policies really cannot have been thought through by anyone in the Opposition, and it is high time it was.

I have no doubt that the United States response would be a greater likelihood of reduction of its contribution to the defence of Europe both in men and money. It is the biggest contribution of all. Those reductions would be followed by others, to the great weakening of the NATO forces in the face of an ever-strengthening threat. I accept that that policy may be helpful in patching up the deep divisions in the Labour party, but it simply will not do for a party which, presumably, aspires to become a Government. I just do not believe that the British people, if they were ever faced with such a dangerous and unworkable policy, would contemplate supporting it for one moment.

This is, of course, for the Labour party to decide—not me—but I hope that it will listen with great care to what is said in the debate, because there is still time for Labour Members to think again and draw back from a policy that is likely to be so damaging.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I have listened to the Secretary of State's comprehensive review. I appreciate that it is not entirely within his departmental remit, but the right hon. Gentleman has not referred to the shrinkage of the merchant service in recent years, which is an important part of the defence equation. What do the Government intend to do about that?

Mr. Younger

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that is a most important point. I can only say that I cannot include every aspect of this large White Paper in one speech, but I can assure him that that matter gives rise to great concern. We are watching carefully the state of the merchant fleet with particular regard to the types of ships that we are likely to need for any future defence purpose. The present situation is that there are sufficient such ships for our needs, except for one or two particular categories. However, we are keeping the matter closely under review. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that.

As I have said, defence is the most important long-term issue that any Government face.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The right hon. Gentleman appears to be moving towards his conclusion. I wanted to intervene because he roundly attacked the inconsistencies, as he sees it, of the Opposition parties. He claimed for the Government stability, consistency and genuine continuity of policy stretching over the years.

Earlier the right hon. Gentleman carefully explained to the House that he was cutting overall defence expenditure by one and a half percentage points, and perhaps five or six percentage points over the next five years. I should like to draw his attention to the answer given by his predecessor to last year's Select Committee on Defence, when it was put to him that that might happen. His predecessor said: I would think that is an unthinkable denial of resources in the defence budget. There are no plans or any discussions or even information that such a thing could come about. In the light of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has announced that such a thing has just come about, how on earth does he square that statement with his predecessor's clear answer, taken on the basis that it could not be, as we must say in the House, a deliberate deceit?

Mr. Younger

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that one thing he would be well advised not to try to do would be to reopen the subject of the divisions in the alliance on defence. That would be much better swept under the carpet, if the hon. Gentleman could find a carpet big enough.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's precise point, there is nothing new in any of this. It was clear as from last year what the trend of expenditure would be in the defence budget. What I had to do, which my predecessor did not have to do because it was not yet in the time scale for him to do it, was deal with this year's review of the budgeting expenditure and bring it into line with the expenditure in the White Paper. There is nothing new about that. It is well known. The Select Committee has given an extensive description of it.

The hon. Gentleman's energies would, on reflection, be better directed to going back to his colleagues in the Social Democratic party and trying to get some agreement out of them about a joint policy for the alliance, because two parties that have two different defence policies may be giving choice, but it is a choice that the British people will find confusing.

As I have said, defence is the most important long-term issue that any Government face. It is not a subject for flippant sloganising, and it is not susceptible to glib solutions. Security can be achieved only by sustained efforts to provide the forces that are necessary. The Government are facing up to their responsibilities seriously and realistically, as the White Paper makes clear. Defence is one area of policy where there should be no changes of direction from year to year. There are no quick fixes in this White Paper. Instead, there is a clear message— continuity, consolidation and realism; and sustained effort in support of NATO and in defence of our peace and freedom.

Today we have before us two amendments tabled by two of the Opposition parties—or perhaps I should say three. They are revealing amendments because they attempt to lay before us the truly devastating and damaging alternatives, or non-alternatives, with which the country is faced. In view of those amendments, which I hope will be closely scrutinised in the debate, I ask the House to approve the motion on the Defence White Paper.

4.48 pm
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: believes that the plans outlined in the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1986, Cmnd. 9673, and in particular the Government's plans to buy the Trident nuclear system, are leading to damaging cuts in Britain's conventional defence capabilities at home and abroad and in Britain's defence industrial base; calls upon the Government to cancel Trident and to use the money saved for more practical non-nuclear defence purposes; declares that the security and the defence of the United Kingdom will be best served in future by maintaining strong conventional defences within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and not by acquiring a new generation of nuclear weaponry of any kind; and calls upon the Government to take an active part in securing the removal of all nuclear weapons from the United Kingdom and the reduction and abolition of all nuclear weapons, and also to make plain its opposition to the production and deployment of chemical weapons by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States of America and any other nations". The Secretary of State has tried to paint a reasonably rosy picture of defence expenditure, but, as he knows—he has not tried to conceal it—it is clear that from now on expenditure for Britain's defences will fall. The figures were in the public expenditure White Paper and, of course, they are in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1986", which we are now debating.

The calculation of the percentage amount of that fall, as often, depends on what assumptions are made, but they range from about 4.5 per cent. at one end to close on 7 per cent. at the other. Outside commentators and, I am told, perhaps even some internal Treasury sources have estimated that the fall, cut or reduction could be close on £1 billion a year. When that point was put to the Secretary of State in the Select Committee on Defence, he seemed surprised. However, the accuracy of the figure has never been convincingly challenged. Perhaps it will be challenged later in the debate but it has never been refuted.

As with all Governments, this Government's figures are based upon a number of optimistic assumptions and on wishful thinking. They are based on assumptions about inflation and the exchange rates. The inflation figures—and the Select Committee stressed the importance of these figures—may look reasonable at the moment. However, with the Chancellor running the money printing presses on a three-shift basis, and with wages in the private and public sectors increasing by twice or three times the retail price index, the short-term future for inflation does not look too good. With the balance of payments deteriorating, the value of the pound in the international exchanges can only decline. It will certainly not go up. As the Secretary of State knows, a rise in inflation and a fall in the exchange rates would make his problem worse.

A number of major commitments have not yet been costed. The cost of completing the Nimrod project, whether or not it is completed by GEC — and the Opposition hope and believe that GEC will be able to complete it successfully—has not been calculated. If it is not completed by GEC, there will be the cost of purchasing a new system from the United States.

The cost of replacing the Royal Navy's amphibious vessels has yet to be calculated. The Opposition believe that these vessels must be replaced.

Some of us were rather surprised to read the evidence given to the Select Committee by the Secretary of State regarding the European fighter aircraft. Apparently that aircraft has not been costed. The Secretary of State is hoping that the expenditure will not fall into the budget until well into the 1990s when no doubt he will not be Secretary of State for Defence. Even more surprising, it appears that all that we are committed to—and perhaps Conservative Members knew this—is a feasibility study. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) will deal with that point in detail tomorrow. However, the thousands of workers in the aerospace industry need to be told what the commitments are and we need assurances about the building of the European fighter aircraft.

On other occasions the Secretary of State has told us that there will not be a fundamental defence review. We have been told that there will be stringent financial reviews, hard choices and difficult decisions. As we know, that is the language of cuts. However, we have been told that there will be no review.

I believe the Secretary of State. He would not dare, as he knows, for political reasons, have a fundamental defence review. We believe that if the Conservative party were to win the next general election a defence review would result. In the meantime, the Secretary of State, like the good soldier that he is, will soldier on. There will be selective cuts, and we have heard about some of them today. There will he programme delays and there will be what is known in the trade as salami slicing.

It was reported recently in Jane's Defence Weekly—and we have heard a list of cuts today—that 40 projects are under consideration for cuts or delays. The cuts will fall mainly on the budget for equipment. We believe and fear that the prime target again will be the ships of the Royal Navy. It is rumoured that the ghost of Sir John Nott is again beginning to stalk the corridors of the Ministry of Defence, striking terror above and below decks. The Government maintain — and we heard it again today from the Secretary of State—that they are committed to a Navy of 50 destroyers and frigates. The Under-Secretary of State has also made that claim, but we have noticed that he makes it these days with little relish or enthusiasm.

As the Select Committee made clear, there is no point in having 50 frigates and destroyers if most of them are in a naval museum or if they are unable to venture out much further than the Isle of Wight. To maintain a modern 50-warship Navy, the Government must order at least three type 23 frigates a year. We got one in 1984. We did not get any in 1985, and we still have not had one in 1986, although great announcements are presaged for the end of this Session.

Unless the Government speed up their ordering quite drastically, our sailors will have to go to sea in the 1990s with the technology of the 1950s and 1960s. The costs of maintaining an aging Navy will of course be an additional burden on the defence budget, and the prospects for our warship building yards, especially on the Tyne and on the Clyde, will be grim.

Under this Government we have already seen the virtual demise of Britain as a builder of merchant ships. Our Merchant Navy is declining rapidly and, unless orders start coming quickly, we will soon become a naval nation with little or no capacity to build our own warships.

The real problem, which was hardly mentioned by the Secretary of State, is Trident. Over the next few years, the cost of Trident will increase rapidly and dramatically. At the same time, the total spent on defence will not only remain static but will actually fall. Within a falling defence budget, there will be an escalation in cost of one item which is completely sacrosanct and which will not be cut by the Government in any way.

Yes, of course the Government can afford Trident, but the price will be paid by the ships of the Royal Navy, by the aircraft of the Royal Air Force or by the tanks in the British Army, or through a combination of all three. Our conventional contribution to NATO and our front-line capability will be reduced and weakened at a time when the urgent necessity in Europe, especially after the lessons of the nuclear explosion in the Ukraine, is to raise the nuclear threshold. Some of the battlefield nuclear weapons in central Europe are a thousand times more powrful than the explosion in the nuclear power station at Chernobyl. If one or two of those battlefield nuclear weapons were used, friend and foe would be destroyed, and not just on the battlefield. The urgent necessity is to build our conventional strength and raise the nuclear threshold. The Government are reducing our conventional strength and thereby lowering the nuclear threshold in NATO and in Europe.

Cutting the non-nuclear equipment budget—which is where we believe the money for Trident will be found.—would also put thousands of jobs in the defence industries seriously at risk, because 95 per cent. of those jobs are engaged in producing non-nuclear equipment. The damage is compounded because almost £5 billion of the contribution and the cost of Trident will not be spent in Britain. It will be spent in the defence industries of the United States. A type 23 frigate costs £110 million or £120 million, yet the shipyards and the warship yards on the Clyde and on the Tyne have to scramble for the few orders available. However, the Government are prepared to pour £5 billion into the defence factories in California and Texas which have done so well out of President Reagan's defence-led and deficit-financed economic boom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give employees in our naval warship yards an assurance that their jobs would be safeguarded under a naval programme initiated by an incoming Labour Administration? Will he give the same guarantee that he gave to workers at Vickers in Barrow?

Mr. Davies

Indeed. We have made it absolutely clear that, because we will switch the money spent on Trident to conventional—

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

All of it?

Mr. Davies

Yes, all of it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should read the Opposition amendment.

Mr. Mates

No cuts?

Mr. Davies

I can give the Minister the assurance that he sought.

Mr. Lee

May I have it absolutely clear? All jobs in naval shipyards will be guaranteed by an incoming Labour Government through a naval building programme: is that what the right hon. Gentleman is saying?

Mr. Davies

The jobs will be preserved because we will be able to preserve the naval ordering programme and the present Government will not. I shall read our amendment out if the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr Mates) wants me to.

Mr. Mates

Yes, read it out.

Mr. Davies

We believe that the money saved by cancelling Trident should be used for non-nuclear defence. It should be used to makntain and preserve existing commitments. We do not believe that the Government can preserve existing commitments— a 50-warship Navy, a European fighter aircraft and the rest. It should be used also to strengthen our conventional defences in NATO, to raise the nuclear threshold and, we hope, to prevent a nuclear war, or a war in Europe becoming a nuclear one.

Mr. Couchman

The right hon. Gentleman has just given some commitments to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and he made some statements regarding the extent to which Labour would transfer from Trident to conventional forces. How, therefore, does he explain that, on a platform which I recently shared with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), when the hon. Gentleman was challenged on how he would find money for his aspirations for the National Health Service, he said, "We will stop Trident"?

Mr. Davies

I will have to study what my hon. Friend said. I have just made the point clearly in the House of Commons, which is the right place in which to say such things.

Mr. Couchman


Mr. Davies

No. This is a two-day debate. I have given way enough and the hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity to make his speech. I have made the commitment absolutely clearly where it should be made —here in the House.

We believe that the case against acquiring Trident or any other nuclear system for Britain does not rest only on financial and economic grounds. The issue is not just about modernisation, a word conveniently chosen by the Government to preserve what was again today described as continuity so that there is no debate about this fundamental issue.

The issue at the moment is whether it makes economic, military and political sense for Britain, bearing in mind all of the changes that have occurred in society, our place in the world and in the world itself since the end of the last world war, to acquire what I would describe as third generation nuclear weapons. The House knows that Mr. Attlee and Mr. Bevin acquired the first. I understand from my reading of the history books that there was not much debate about that then. Mr. Macmillan acquired the second generation; and ultimately—there is still time—the country will have to decide whether to go down that road for the third time.

It is absurd to pretend that this is a simple issue. There are financial and economic factors, and the effect on Our non-nuclear defence exenditure must be considered. We have also to consider the morality, or otherwise, of nuclear weapons and the military credibility of a British nuclear system in a world of massive superpower nuclear superiority. There are also the political consequences for Britain of whatever decision is taken to be considered.

Perhaps because the issue is so complex and can never be entirely resolved by applying objective criteria, most debates in the House and outside tend, unfortunately, to become slanging matches. Those who are against the bomb are accused of being unpatriotic, and those in favour of it are sometimes accused of being the perpetrators or seekers after nuclear holocaust. It is obvious that neither picture is true of the overwhelming majority of hon. Members and people outside.

We agree with the Government at least in one respect. It is no good pretending that this decision can be put off much longer. It is no good hoping that the political dilemma can be avoided by waiting almost until the Polaris hulls are full of holes and the noise of their engines can be heard in the Kremlin. Nor is there any escape, as some seem to think, in the arms talks. We all hope that the talks will be successful, whatever that really means. Mr. Karpov and Mr. Kemplemann at Geneva might eventually be able to agree deep cuts in the strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and America. They may agree to cuts of 50 per cent. I hope that they do. As the Secretary of State said, some optimistic noises are coming from Geneva, Washington and Moscow.

Even if Russia and America agreed deep cuts, they would still have massive nuclear capabilities and all of the questions about a British nuclear system would remain. Questions about morality, costs, and the effect on our conventional weaponry and the military capability of a British nuclear system would remain. There is no escape from making a decision. It is no good hoping that the Geneva talks will enable hon. Members to postpone a choice.

The Opposition's stance is clear. We do not believe that it makes sense, militarily or otherwise, for Britain to go nuclear a third time. I have mentioned the economic and financial case and the effects on our conventional defences, but there is a moral case. Many people might be surprised to discover that they agree even with President Reagan that nuclear weapons are immoral. There are many who travel the extra mile with the American Catholic bishops and conclude, as they did, that if nuclear weapons are immoral a defence policy based on them is also immoral. There are many people who share the late President Kennedy's abhorrence for what he called "a strategy of annihilation".

The military arguments that have been trotted out in respect of the British nuclear deterrent have not been wholly convincing. All of the best casuists and sophists at the Foreign Office and at the Ministry of Defence have hot been able to make a cast iron case.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The right hon. Gentleman and the Labour amendment make it clear that the Labour party does not believe in going on to the next generation of British nuclear weaponry. Will he make it clear whether, if Labour took office, it would decommission Polaris immediately?

Mr. Davies

I shall come to that.

The case for Trident has not been made strongly. We have had several facile phrases. We have been told about the second centre of decision-making. We have a seamless web. We have the weapon of last resort. That is a chilling phrase which conjures up a romantic but gruesome image of Britannia and her trident with her back to the sea and with Europe apparently in ruins and America either defeated or sulking in her tent. Then there was, and no doubt still is, the "peace in Europe for 40 years" brigade. That slogan was much favoured by the Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). It had the slightly veiled hint that in reality it was the British bomb that had contained the hordes from the East. It ignored the effect on Europe of the post-war settlement and the fact that there had been other periods in European history when there had been peace for 40 years without nuclear weapons.

I suspect that, paradoxically, the British bomb was not contrived or conceived as a military weapon, and that that is why it has been so difficult to find a military rationale for its existence. I believe that it was born out of the great conferences at the end of the second world war. It could be said to be a Yalta or Potsdam bomb, a "seat at the top table" bomb—these days we hear little about the top table—or, dare I say it, a "not naked in the conference chamber" bomb. Sadly for some and happily for others there has been no British presence at the superpower talks. The Secretary of State tried to trot out the conferences where Britain is still present, but there has been no British presence at talks about nuclear weapons since 1963. The players are now Mr. Karpov and Mr. Kemplemann. We believe that it would be foolish nonsense to conjure up images of past glories by spending £10 billion or perhaps more on a weapon which we cannot afford and which we would not dare use.

It is no secret that some hon. Members are opposed to Trident, yet believe that Britain can and should remain a nuclear weapon state. It is not the view of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). In an interview published in Jane's Defence Weekly on 15 March the right hon. Gentleman said: As far as we can tell you, there is no case for renewing the independent nuclear deterrent … We don't see any case for the British independent deterrent and that's a view the Liberal Party has consistently taken since the late 1950s. He continued—I do not understand this— we prefer to be simply the servicing and the facility arrangement for the American nuclear deterrent. It is no secret that some people believe that it is possible to cancel Trident and still acquire some sort of British nuclear weapon. They are indulging in escapism and fantasy. As Mr. William Rodgers, a vice-president of the SDP, pointed out in The Times of Thursday 12 June, such a view is a "fudge". He said: The real fudge is to say unequivocally that Trident should be cancelled but that Britain should remain a nuclear weapons state. The lacuna is obvious: how? The idea of submarine-launched cruise missiles has its supporters. But it was rejected by Labour ministers in 1978 and then by a Conservative Government. Most defence experts are sceptical. If Trident is cancelled in two years' time, some £2.5 billion to £3 billion will have been spent … It is far from clear that the remaining sum would enable additional submarines to be built, new British warheads for cruise missiles to be developed and new missiles acquired, perhaps with French participation, all at significantly less than the cost of Trident. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) may not agree with Mr. Rodgers. I have always listened with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman's speeches on defence and disarmament. He takes a great interest in the subject. However, I am afraid that on this matter the right hon. Gentleman is all at sea. He scatters words, ideas, and, metaphorically speaking, various nuclear systems around the Chamber like confetti, but we get little hard, practical analysis. We get many prescriptions, but there is no cure in sight.

Last year we started with the French M7 missile, then we had a various assortment of cruise missiles, American missiles on ships, submarines, land and air planes, and then Anglo-French missiles on ships, submarines, land and air planes. Now the ideas have become even grander and more dangerous. Recently in Bonn the right hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying that we needed a European bomb — a European deterrent — which is, interestingly, mentioned in the amendment on the Order Paper in the names of the leaders of the Liberal party and the SDP. They call for a European bomb and a sort of European nuclear club. It seems that the right hon. Member for Devonport has won after all.

Who will prepare and bring in this European bomb? I suppose that Britain would contribute, but I do not know about the French. Perhaps they will play and perhaps they will not. They are not a member of the military structure of NATO. Will the Danes contribute to this European bomb? Will the Dutch, the Belgians and the Norwegians take part? Will they be consulted for their views?

The most substantial question is whether the Federal Republic of Germany will take part. I should have thought that it was impossible to have a European deterrent without some sort of participation—perhaps perhaps it can be hedged around — by the most powerful economic and industrial country in Western Europe whose territory would be in the front line. Whichever countries participated, it would be impossible to have a European bomb without German participation. One could say that at least Franz Josef Strauss and his friends would be queuing up rapidly to sign and join.

The repercussions of a European bomb, which must be considered as they have been tabled in an amendment, are enormous for the stability of West Germany, for other European nations of NATO, for relationships between Western Europe and the Soviet Union, and for arms control implications of the non-proliferation treaty, the comprehensive nuclear test ban agreement and all the other agreements which have been negotiated since the war. That is too high and too dangerous a price to pay to exorcise the angst of the leader of the SDP.

We believe in, and we have tried to put forward, a comprehensive, clear defence policy, although the Secretary of State does not like it. It is that we should make a substantial conventional contribution to NATO and that we should spend the money that would otherwise be wasted on Trident on our conventional defences.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The right hon. Gentleman has not yet explained to the House how he justifies throwing the United States out of its nuclear bases here. How can he rely on a presence in NATO when NATO strategy is firmly based on conventional and nuclear deterrence? Has he seen what has happened to the ANZUS treaty which, in the past few days, has been effectively set aside because the United States was not prepared to be a member of a treaty organisation when one member of it had said that ships carrying nuclear weapons could not go through its ports?

Mr. Davies

I know two things. First, a Labour Government will contribute, as this Government are contributing, 95 per cent. of Britain's defence budget to NATO. That is a substantial commitment, and greater than that of the United States. That contribution will be valued by our NATO partners, and will maintain the influence within the Alliance that we have now.

Secondly, I noticed in the alliance amendment a reference to bases. I suggest that the time has come when the right hon. Member for Devonport should make his own, constructive defence policy and not try to escape by attacking the Labour party's defence policy.

I have made it clear that our policy means that there will be a strong conventional contribution to NATO. That policy is morally right for Britain and it makes military sense. We shall put that policy honestly and clearly to the electorate, and I believe that it will accept it.


Sir Humphrey Atkins (Spelthorne)

Before I come to my comments on the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I shall spend some time dealing with the speech made by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), speaking on behalf of the Labour party. Several points arise from his speech that I wish to explore. He has made it clear that it is Labour party policy to abandon the nuclear deterrent. I accept that this is the most fearful weapon that mankind has invented and I have no doubt that both he and I would be much happier if it had never been invented.

However, does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Soviet Union does not look at it in that way? Does he think that the possession by the West of nuclear weapons does not give the Soviet Union pause for thought? If he believes that the Soviet Union would hesitate to attack an enemy when it knew that it would be retaliated in that way he is admitting that nuclear weapons are a deterrent.

As I understood him, and no doubt he will correct me if I am wrong, the right hon. Gentleman is saying that nuclear weapons are a deterrent to the Soviet Union but that we should not have them. In effect, he is saying that the West must rely on the United States or France for its deterrence. I find it difficult to understand how he and some of his colleagues can, at one and the same time, be offensive about the United States and say that we shall rely on that country for the deterrent. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would prefer that we rely on the French. Does he seriously believe that by deliberately weakening ourselves we should be safer? I cannot follow the logic of that argument.

The right hon. Gentleman was clear about what he would do with the money saved if we stopped all nuclear weapon programmes. I was delighted, because he was not so clear only six short months ago when he said that the Labour party would maintain conventional defence spending at present levels."—[Official Report, 30 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 1126.] Presumably he has changed his mind since then, as he said that he wants to increase expenditure on conventional defence. However, I must draw his attention to the fact that that is not what his noble Friend Lord Graham of Edmonton said in the other place last week. He was speaking on behalf of the Labour party, so I am not allowed to quote his words. However, he made it clear that, in the view of the Labour party in the other place, we were spending too much on defence. If the right hon. Gentleman does not believe me, I suggest that he consults the Lords Hansard for 25 June 1986, column 363. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is disowning the Labour party Front Bench in the other place. It is difficult to understand precisely where it stands.

If the right hon. Gentleman's latest remarks, contradicting what he said in January, are now the position of the Labour party, I wonder whether to do what he suggests would increase the level of deterrence. He says that if we save money on the nuclear deterrent, we could spend it all on something else. Last week, in the other place, a Government statement was made by my noble Friend Lord Glenarthur, which I am allowed to quote. He spoke of the alternatives that one could buy for the money that we spend on Trident over its life. He said: This will be the equivalent of about three armoured divisions on the central front or, in terms of the equivalent annual expenditure, half the amount we spend on service training, a third of the amount that we spend on BAOR, and a mere one-sixth of the amount that we spend on service pay and allowances". — [Official Report, House of Lords, 25 June 1986; Vol. 477, c. 370.] My noble Friend asked the Opposition in the other place, and I now ask the right hon. Gentleman, whether he seriously thinks that, if he were sitting in the Kremlin, he would be more deterred by this country's possession of Trident or by our possession of three armoured divisions on the central front. I hope that this question will be answered by the end of the debate. I cannot say that three armoured divisions, however good they are—they would be very good if they were ours—would be a deterrent equal to Trident. The right hon. Gentleman has proposed that all nuclear weapons should be removed from the United Kingdom and that the ships that carry them should not be allowed to enter our ports. What effect does he think that that would have on the United States?

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference in the United States three weeks ago and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) was there with me. It was clear from what was said by eminent United States speakers, not service people but people from universities, that the attitude of the United States is not anything like as good we would like it to be. We were told from the platform that the United States, which, as we all know, contributes nearly three times as much to defence as all the European countries put together, is getting fed up with constantly being told by Europe that everything that it does is wrong.

We were told by one professor that a survey showed that attitudes in the United States were changing and that there was definitely a mood that Europe was a thoroughly tiresome place a long way away that cost America a great deal of time and effort. There was a question mark over whether it was really worth saving— [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) can laugh. We and the hon. Member for Attercliffe, if he was there at the time, were told that not once but twice from the platform during the conference organised by the Supreme Allied Commander-in-Chief Atlantic. There is no doubt that Americans increasingly question, as the older ones among them die off, the need for them to be in Europe.

Another fact that I learnt when I was in the United States is that, increasingly, the people of the United States are turning away from the Atlantic. That is because, as I was told, for the first time more than 50 per cent. of the population live west of the Mississippi. When they look to the sea, they do not look this way; they look the other way. If Britain took a step such as has been described by the right hon. Member for Llanelli, the effect in the United States would be shattering. If the policy enunciated by the right hon. Gentleman were put into effect, the United States would before long withdraw from NATO. When the right hon. Gentleman propounds that policy, he should address himself to that difficulty.

I shall talk briefly about the report of the Select Committee on Defence, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, which was mentioned in kind terms by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I shall make three comments on the many matters which the Select Committee on Defence sought to cover in the report now before the House.

My first point is how much I and all my colleagues welcome the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the Committee and its activities. He has held office for only a few months, hut he has been extremely candid with the Committee. We all recognise his determination to get to grips with the many proplems that face him. We mentioned many of those problems in our third report of last Session, including the consequences of the ending of the Government's commitment to increase defence expenditure by 3 per cent. per annum. Those problems have not gone away. The Minister knows that. He made it clear to the Committee that he knew and, furthermore, that he would grip the problems.

One example of the Minister's determination is the Nimrod airborne early warning adventure, started in 1977 by the Labour party, which has gone so unhappily wrong for so many years. My right hon. Friend made it clear that if the British system cannot be made to work in six months with a limited expenditure of money, he will have to look elsewhere. I agree with that. He must. Everyone hopes that he will not have to, because we would infinitely prefer a system manufactured by Marconi or another company which could be put in our aeroplanes and would work. The present system does not work. The Minister is right to put a time limit on the system because, as it stands, and as the Select Committee has been told by the Supreme Allied Commander-in-Chief Europe, it is a hole in the defences of NATO.

That is a decision that the Minister will have to take. As he has frankly admitted to us, he must take many others. I shall not discuss them all because they are in the report, but I speak for the entire Committee and, I am sure, for the entire House when I say how glad we are to have a Secretary of State who is determined to get to grips with the problems and settle them in the best way he can and as quickly as he can in the interests of Britain's defence.

Secondly, I mention the Merchant Navy, as I did in the debate last year, and, as the Select Committee's report did last year and this year. I make no apology for that. Although it may not officially be recognised as a defence asset, we all know that it is. I congratulate the Minister on having produced a table of figures in the White Paper and on addressing the problem in concert with his friends in other Government Departments. It is as well that he does that. Last year, I drew the attention of the House to the fact that the size of the Merchant Navy under the British flag was diminishing and said that the General Council of British Shipping had forecast by how much it would diminish in the ensuring year. That has happened almost exactly as forecast. It is more urgent now than it was a year ago that the Government should address their mind to what to do about it.

We all want a formal statement of Government policy, for which the Select Committee on Defence called last year, covering the areas of vital importance: the numbers of ships, the availability of ships, the legal powers over the ships and a range of similar matters. Every year, as the number of ships under the British flag diminishes, the more urgent it becomes for the Government to come to grips with the problem and consider what they can do to stop the decline, because, as the Government and everyone else knows, the vast bulk of our supplies, civil and military, still travel by sea and will for many years.

My final point about the Select Committee's report is that I am glad that my right hon. Friend directs his attention to service men's allowances. Ultimately everything that hon. Members and the Government do to defend Britain depends on the man in the field. If he is not treated well he will not perform well. As I am sure the Minister knows, there is a feeling throughout the forces that their employers, the Government, with our support, are not treating them in the matter of allowances as well as they should. I cannot say whether that feeling is totally justified. In some cases, it may be justified, but in other cases it may not. But it is essential that the Government should address themselves to the entire range of allowances to our service men.

The Government should address the matter quickly and produce an answer that is seen to be fair. As I have said before, the defence of Britain rests on the individual to whom one of the greatest British soldiers once put a name—it is the same surname as mine— in a general order. That soldier is the man upon whom our safety depends. If he—in the words of that famous soldier—when ordered will stand to his front and face the enemy, we shall be safe. He will do so if he is properly treated and properly led. None of us has much doubt that he is properly led. It is our business to see that he is properly treated. If he is not properly treated and, when the call comes, does not stand to the front and face the enemy, we shall have no one to blame but ourselves.

5.38 pm
Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

The amendment tabled—but not accepted— by myself and my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal party draws attention to the underlying and fundamental anxiety on both sides of the House: that during the next three years there will be a reduction in real terms in defence spending of more than 4.5 per cent.

The Secretary of State's interesting speech sought to pray in aid the consistency within the Conservative party on defence. He should recall that we were given a solemn undertaking last autumn that defence spending would continue on the basis of level funding for the next few years. He does not do his case a service if he tries to deny that he must now grapple with the problems of a declining defence budget.

I do not deny that with cost efficiencies better value for money could be obtained, but we should not exaggerate the extent to which the Ministry of Defence can continue to make cost-efficient savings without serious cuts in its front-line effectiveness. This is a Ministry which, under successive Governments for more than 20 years, has looked for cost savings more zealously than almost any other Department. Although there was a good deal of fat on the system, we would be foolish to try to deny that it has now been cut to the bone.

On forward budgeting, it will be extremely difficult to find the resources for the new fighter aircraft replacement. It was right for us to go ahead with replacing the fighter aircraft. It was extremely important on European grounds. It was one of the first recent decisions which demonstrated that the Federal Republic of Germany was prepared, on defence matters, to seek a solution which would he in the overall interests of NATO, and not be persuaded by the French to stick solely with German-French collaboration. The decision augurs well for our fundamental defence need in the next few years, which is that Britain, France and Germany should work more closely together than hitherto to strengthen the European defence pillar.

On a recent visit to Germany I visited the RAF and a Tornado squadron. I have never been to any part of the armed services where a single weapons system has been so enthusiatically received by everyone. It was praised at every level. There is no doubt that Britain has a fine aircraft, which is an extremely good example of European co-operation. I shall say more later about the future of European co-operation. Although we all agree that formidable obstacles lie ahead for European procurement, the Tornado aircraft is a fine example of what can be done.

We still await a decision about our amphibious forces. It appears as though the Minister believes that much can be done by using the hulls of Fearless and Intrepid. I have some sympathy for him searching for economies, in view of the strains which will be placed on all conventional forces.

Those ships were built in the days when ships were built to last. Perhaps we can extend their lives by an extensive refit. But many people, not just on both sides of the House but in the country, will not be happy to allow the Minister to give up the amphibious capability on the northern and southern flanks. It may mean some make and mend, but the Royal Marines have a special place in the affections of the British people and a proven record which we shall not allow to be sunk on the rock of inter-service rivalry.

The Secretary of State may have to come to the House and say that it will be impossible to build a 50-frigate Navy. In another place, a former Chief of the Defence Staff and Chief of Naval Staff said that the present build rate would not provide a 50-frigate Navy. I agree that it will not, however much sleight of hand is used. What worries me even more is that we are not maintaining the build rate for the hunter-killer submarine force. Those ships are the real new capital ships of the Royal Navy, and they are fundamental to our specialised naval contribution to NATO. Few other navies can contribute in this area, and it would be a great shame if Britain cut back its hunter-killer submarine fleet. It is important to the European balance in NATO that Britain should maintain those forces.

There is justified anxiety about the strain on the conventional budget. However, it is good to see that reductions have been made in the Falklands garrison. It must also be said that it is in Britain's defence interest to undertake negotiations with Argentina and lower the tension so that we can reduce the forces even further and reach, at least during the next few years, a modus vivendi.

When there is a new Government, serious negotiations should take place on the long-term future of the Falkland islanders to obtain peace in the south Atlantic. We cannot continue to pay the heavy costs, of garrisoning the Falklands in perpetuity. None of us in the House would wish that commitment on our successors.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I was in the Falkland islands last week. The right hon. Gentleman's point is very pertinent. It took a little time to persuade the Falkland islanders, their committees and councillors of this point, but they are beginning to appreciate that a reduction in the threat from the other side would mean less criticism levelled at them of the cost of defending the Falklands.

Dr. Owen

I have always believed that the Falkland islanders can be persuaded, if we show leadership, that their best interests can, in the long term, be secured by peaceful relations between Argentina and Britain. It will not be easy in the aftermath of the war. The Prime Minister seems to believe that there cannot be negotiations or discussions on sovereignty because of the loss of life and injuries sustained in the war. She underestimates the armed services and the people who went to the south Atlantic. They went there to resist aggression. In making their sacrifices, they did not believe that, in a reasonable time scale, there could not be discussions, dialogue and eventually a peace settlement between Britain and Argentina. Armed force is used to make way for peace.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that we could have serious discussions with Argentina without saying that we shall give away the islands' sovereignty?

Dr. Owen

I believe that one of the prices of war may be that the direct transfer of sovereignty to Argentina is no longer negotiable. The solution will come through shared sovereignty, or an allocation of sovereignty to some international body, such as the United Nations, so that sovereignty is held by neither Britain nor Argentina. Because of possible military challenges, there would have to be substantial safeguards if sovereignty was passed to the United Nations. However, there are safeguards that could be used and this could be a more fruitful approach.

In view of the contributions made by the Secretary of State and by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), it would be wrong for me to avoid the central issue of nuclear policy. I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Llanelli said. The issue has become too polarised. He must, however, face the massive differences that will occur if the Labour party — if ever in government—decides to disown the American nuclear guarantee and asks the United States to withdraw from its nuclear bases in Britain. That would undermine the core of the existence, philosophy and military doctrine of the NATO Alliance, which has always been firmly based on the need for conventional and nuclear deterrence. If we turn round and kick in the teeth—for that is how it will be seen by the Americans—the principal guarantor of the NATO Alliance, by asking them to withdraw their nuclear bases, we must not be surprised if that is the result.

We ought also to consider New Zealand's position. Only two days ago Mr. Shultz said that New Zealand, in taking the position, in effect, that United States Naval ships cannot call at New Zealand's ports, has taken away one of the essences of the military alliance that constitutes ANZUS. For the first time it now looks as if Washington has taken a step formally to withdraw a United States guarantee to assist a treaty partner in time of trouble. There are ominous portents in that decision, deliberately taken. They are a warning to us in the United Kingdom of what would happen if the Labour party were ever to be returned to office and were to follow that course. Therefore. the right hon. Member for Llanelli, who singularly failed to answer the question that I put to him, must recognise that deep passions will be aroused and that there will be great concern and very considerable political argument, because what is at stake is the very existence of NATO.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)


Dr. Owen

Whether or not Britain should retain its nuclear weapons is a different question and a different kind of argument. Provided that Britain accepts that NATO should still retain nuclear and conventional deterrents and provided also that we are content to rely upon the United States nuclear guarantee, that is a perfectly credible intellectual position to adopt. However, the question that this House has to answer—and the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) whose Select Committee has done so much to enrich our debates posed it very openly—is whether we can continue to rely upon the absolute nature of the United States guarantee.

We must consider the changes that are taking place in the United States. At one time, one in four of the United States population had their origins in Europe. Now it is one in 10. There has been a massive shift of population towards the western and southern states. Nobody who knows and loves the United States cannot but appreciate that the Pacific orientation is much stronger than it was 10, let alone 20, years ago. We cannot assume in perpetuity that Senators and Congressmen will still be able to persuade United States voters and taxpayers to fund 300,000 members of the United States armed forces on the mainland of Europe. That element of United States forces is, I believe, the real nuclear guarantee. It is far more effective than land-based United States missiles on the continent of Europe. Missiles are not nearly so important as United States forces.

Mr. Hind

Does the right hon. Gentleman not feel that there is an intellectual conflict in the Labour party's position? It does not wish any nuclear weapons to be based on British soil, but within NATO it is content to call upon American nuclear forces to defend Britain, if necessary. In other words, it is all right to have access to the weapons but it is not all right to have them on British soil as British weapons.

Dr. Owen

I have already dealt with the logical inconsistency and moral weakness of the Labour party's case. The logic of disowning nuclear weapons—not only our own but those of our allies—leads progressively to the justification of neutralism and to a lesser commitment to NATO, and it leads eventually through a grave impact upon the cohesion of NATO to its dismemberment, as we know it now.

On the question of what should be the European role, there seems to be a growing acceptance in Europe that the European pillar within NATO must be strengthened and that the anxiety in the past that, if one talked about it, it might encourage the United States to pull out was unfounded. The arguments that one heard at the time of the Mansfield amendment—including the fear that if we became more independent in Europe that would feed American anxieties to withdraw—have been discredited. The urgent feeling that Europe should face up to its own defence responsibilities is widespread and there is considerable discussion about it.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli must face the fact that there are two European bombs at the moment. France is a nuclear state; so is Britain. The right hon. Gentleman seems not to realise fully the extent of the co-operation that now exists and that is building up all the time between the Federal Republic of Germany and France. The political parties in the Federal Republic of Germany do not wish Germany to become a nuclear state, but they recognise that if there is to be a strong European pillar of NATO defence, the Federal Republic of Germany, as a non-nuclear weapon state, must become more involved in nuclear strategy. This becomes even more important as France moves on from Pluton to a new missile, Hades, a nuclear missile with a range which means it can be fired from French territory over the Federal Republic of Germany into East German territory. This means that: the Federal Republic of Germany needs to be involved in French nuclear strategy.

What has worried me over the last decade is that as this Franco-German understanding has emerged on all matters of defence, and increasingly on nuclear defence, Britain has been unable to develop a nuclear relationship with France, or with the Federal Republic of Germany — though perhaps inevitably less so on nuclear weapons. A great deal has been done — I pay tribute to the predecessor of the Secretary of State for Defence and to his Department—to strengthen German-British conventional co-operation, but a great deal more can still be clone to strengthen it. A trilateral relationship — Germany, France and the United Kingdom—could hold the key to our nuclear defence.

It is wholly wrong for people to believe that Trident is the natural follow-on to Polaris. It represents a very substantial increase in nuclear capability over and above Polaris. It is a very good system, and I am very pleased that the United States has it, because the Soviet Union has the same capabilities as those that are contained in the Trident system. However, the question for Britain is whether we can afford it and whether, in arms control terms, it makes any sense for a country that has always believed in a minimum deterrent to be adopting such a sophisticated deterrent.

Trident represents a dramatic 800 per cent. increase in the number of warheads—from 64 to 512—and a 1,200 per cent. increase in the operational availability of warheads — from 32 to 384. It also represents a substantial increase in range—from 2,500 nautical miles to 4,000 nautical miles. Therefore, we must not continue to believe that Trident and Polaris are equivalent weapons systems. Trident is a quantum leap forward.

Mr. Mates

The answer to the questions posed by the right hon. Gentleman are perfectly logical and stand together. He asked whether we can afford Trident and whether it will therefore be the cheapest replacement for Polaris. The Select Committee spent 14 months discussing the question of the next generation of nuclear deterrents and discovered that this was the cheapest system, maintaining the minimum deterrent, which is one boat at sea. Of course it is a leap forward in capability, and that may have to be taken care of afterwards. However, the right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong when he says that, although we are looking for a cheap and effective system, we must not adopt a system that happens to be more effective because it would upset the balance. The two are perfectly compatible.

Dr. Owen

On the question of cost, I concede that the hon. Gentleman conscientiously believes that Trident is the most cost-effective weapons system. However, I do not believe that it was the most cost-effective system when the decision was taken to purchase first the C4 missile and then the D5 missile. I am the first to admit that as the months roll by and as the costs of Trident build up it becomes ever harder to make that choice. At the time of the next general election we shall have to face the fact that substantial amounts of money have already been committed to Trident. That will have to be taken into account in reaching decisions, but I still believe that it is possible to cancel Trident, and I shall explain why.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

A few minutes ago the right hon. Gentleman was postulating that we would need a European deterrent because the United States defences might not be available to us. If that is the case, surely the minimum deterrent would need to be a bit stronger than that which we have today.

Dr. Owen

If Europe is more self-sufficient in its defence the United States will not pull out of the NATO Alliance. It will strengthen those in the United States who wish to remain in NATO if they feel that Europe is making a strong conventional and nuclear commitment. That view is held by many Americans, and many Americans stationed in Europe who are responsible for defence decisions in NATO also hold that view. The Supreme Allied Commander Europe is only one example arguing that a stronger European defence commitment makes it easier for Senators and Congressmen to retain the American commitment to Europe.

I am not postulating a European deterrent on the basis of replacing or excluding the United States, and the United States should certainly not be encouraged to withdraw. I would do everything in my power to hold the United States to the concept of the Atlantic Alliance for as long as humanly possible. If, as I hope, its forces remain for 20, 30 or 40 years, history will show that one of the reasons why they did stay was that there was a more equitable balance in the defence commitment to NATO by the European partners and the United States.

How we make such a contribution brings me to the matter of Trident. The problem about Trident is that the costs will build up steadily over the next 10 years. A number of times in his speeches the Secretary of State has spoken about Tornado and said that the overall programme for Tornado costs was more than that for Trident. The Tornado programme, however, between 1974 and 1984 coincided with one of the most rapidly growing periods in our defence expenditure. There was an overall real terms increase of 24 per cent. and in the equipment budget the real terms increase was 86 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State tends to claim that this increase took place under a Conservative Government, but that is not the case. When the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) was Prime Minister in 1977, we managed to persuade a Labour Cabinet facing difficult post—IMF problems about public expenditure that we should meet the 3 per cent. increase in defence spending for NATO.

I would never say that the Labour party when in government ducks out of making responsible defence decisions. It is a tragedy that the defence of Britain has now become such a polarised issue. Between 1940 and 1979 there was a broad measure of agreement on defence measures, and it is only recently that we have got into the habit of voting against the Defence Estimates. I look forward to the day when we no longer have to vote against them.

The problems arise because of Trident. Over the next 10 years, if Britain goes ahead with the Trident programme, it will cut savagely into our defence capacity. For that reason, I am prepared to look at less effective alternatives. The question that we must ask is whether we can get a reasonable nuclear minimum deterrent that will make a contribution to Europe's minimum deterrent for less money than we would have to spend on Trident. There are a number of options and we should look seriously at them. The first option must be a system that already exists. To hear the talk in the House and outside from time to time, no one would believe that the United States is planning to deploy on its submarines and on its surface ships 758 nuclear-armed land attack missiles with warheads of 200 kilotonnes. Some 250 of those Tomahawk missiles will be deployed on submarines and the remainder on surface ships. The Tomahawk is an existing successful missile and can be fired from the torpedo tubes of conventional submarines. It is being fired from submarines of the United States navy. This missile is similar to submarine and surface-launched missiles in the possession of the Soviet navy, so it is not a new development.

The matter of Trident replacement needs to be kept in proportion. How do the Americans describe this missile system? They talk about it as a strategic reserve and ascribe to it great accuracy of only 100 ft off target. It can deliver a weapon to a hardened strategic target, and the United States navy is extremely pleased with its capabilities. The missile has a range of 1,350 nautical miles, flies only 50 ft over water and with Stealth technology it is almost impossible to detect by radar. It travels from 100 to 300 ft over land with TERCOM guidance.

That is a proven system, but it may well be that we do not wish to buy American technology. In 1981 the French considered, and are considering again, building a similar type of cruise missile to replace their land-based system, which is out of date. However, there is no doubt that they will carry on with their submarine-based system. British Aerospace is quite adamant that it has the capability to build a cruise missile of this quality. The TERCOM guidance system is in use on Tornado and the capability exists for using it on a missile. The Germans have shown some interest in cruise and expressed a readiness to consider a conventional armed cruise missile that would be European-built. Perhaps the Italians would be interested in it as well. Are we to say that such an option should not be seriously considered?

It is to the credit of my hon. Friends and myself that we have suggested that the practicability of a European minimum deterrent should be discussed. My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has rather different views from mine about a submarine-launched missile. He has often rightly stressed the difficulty that exists in arms control agreements about making the distinction between a nuclear-armed cruise missile and one that is conventionally armed. That is a problem we face now because of developments in the United States navy and the Soviet navy, but my hon. Friend raises an important point.

There are other options. The right hon. Member for Llanelli tended to scoff at the French ballistic missile system, but we should not ignore it as a possible option, although we would probably end up paying as much as we pay for Trident. It would not be a bad idea anyhow to discuss that option and to go to the French to find out what they feel about it.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate that it is desirable and right to discuss this, but the time for that has long since passed. If we had time to discuss that, there are two points I would make to the right hon. Gentleman. First, if these missiles have a range of 1,300 miles, they would be uniquely vulnerable in the positions that they would have to take up to have any chance of hitting a likely target. Secondly, if they are to be used in lieu of Poseidon, which is to go out of service in the mid-1990s, by that time the sort of system the right hon. Gentleman has devised would be uniquely vulnerable to the advanced technology of the Soviet Union to work against it. In that case such a large number would be needed for any to have a chance of getting through that the cost would be vastly greater than the cost of the Trident programme.

Dr. Owen

I shall deal with these matters one by one. The Government have spent a lot of time persuading Britain and our European allies that they ought to have ground-based cruise missile systems, so presumably the vulnerability argument falls. The Secretary of State spoke about vulnerability in the 1990s. The system that will become more vulnerable if SDI research leads to deployment is the ballistic missile system, and the unique qualities of ballistic missiles that have made them an effective system make them extremely vulnerable to defence in space. That is not the case with a cruise missile.

If the Secretary of State has opened his mind and talked to his counterparts in the Pentagon he will realise that the addition of Stealth technology has made a massive breakthrough to the capacity of cruise missiles. At the moment they are subsonic. There is no reason, apart from payload, why they should not become supersonic. I have mentioned only submarine launching but there is also the possibility of putting cruise missiles on aeroplanes, as the United States air force and the Soviet air force have already done. That is another option to be considered.

I now come to the Trident submarine, not the missile system. The Secretary of State will not change his mind before the next election, whenever that is, so by then the Trident submarines will be on the slipway in Barrow. If the election takes place in the spring of 1987, which is probably the first opportunity for it, well over 50 per cent. will be committed to Trident 05 — the first Trident submarine—and well over 20 per cent. to Trident 06. It would be helpful if, when the Minister replies to the debate, he could tell us exactly how much is committed to the Trident submarines.

On top of that there is the extraordinary 120 per cent. penalty clause on the Trident submarines. The House is entitled to know a little more about that. Presumably that has been designed to make the contract hard to cancel. I hope that the legal justification and morality of such a commitment can be explained to us. All that adds up to the fact that the Trident submarine could be difficult to cancel. The right hon. Member for Llanelli shakes his head. I thought that the Labour party's policy, if placed in that difficulty, was to keep it without the missile section as a hunter-killer submarine. That is an option, although it is an extremely expensive hunter-killer submarine, and a very big one. But given the amount of money that has already been spent and the need to win votes among the Barrow and Rosyth ship workers, I can understand why the right hon. Gentleman has come up with that solution.

We, too, must look at this matter and in the next few months we must consider the various options for those Trident submarines. Shall we scrap them or do what the Labour pa:ty wants to do and keep them as hunter-killer submarines? I know that the Secretary of State has no doubt at all. He would have Trident missiles and spend billions of pounds. It is a perfectly reasonable option to keep the missile section of the submarine and put cruise missiles in for vertical launch. That is the system that is now being used in the United States navy which already has 12 in a vertical launch mode and may well decide to go for 20 or even 25.

The Secretary of State may shake his head, but let me deal with the vulnerability of cruise missiles. It is true they do not have the same amount of sea room as the Trident missile has with a 4,000-mile range. I agree that the large Trident submarine, if converted, would have a problem in that sense, but not so much as has been stated in the past because the nature of the continental shelf makes it extremely difficult to detect and pick up slow-moving nuclear-powered submarines. The right hon. Gentleman knows that better than most.

The Secretary of State also knows that that option is considered not just by a few maverick figures, or the Social Democratic party because it has somehow to hold a halfway house between Trident, large bombs and the Labour party's no bombs. That option is now favoured by many serious people. The editor of the latest edition of "Jane's Fighting Ships" supports the cruise missile option. I do not know whether anyone inside the Ministry of Defence will ever dare tell the right hon. Gentleman, but I can assure him that many senior officers in dark blue, light blue and khaki uniforms believe that it is high time that we were prepared to consider this as an alternative to Trident.

A substantial body of journalists who comment on defence matters believe that we should reconsider the Trident decision because it will cost so much money. If they dare to put their heads above the parapet, we would see that a good many Members of Parliament on the Government's Back Benches are not convinced about the Trident programme.

Against that background and this reduced budget that is a reasonable question. Many would not have questioned Trident while we were expanding the defence budget by 2 or 3 per cent. per year. Many might not have considered it hack in November when the defence budget was to be held to level funding. But now, when they see reductions of 2.5 per cent. per year in the defence budget, there are many more who are prepared to consider whether we can afford Trident.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are right to take a long careful look at the options over the next few months for retaining a European nuclear deterrent—a minimum nuclear deterrent. Why do I use the term "European"? Of course, it is right that the French President will still retain overall responsibility for a French weapons system, and as one cannot delegate to a military commander and as there is no federal President of Europe, it will have to be retained by a British Prime Minister. The command and control will always have to be in political hands.

But if we could agree the refitting cycle for the submarines,; if we could agree the targeting strategy with the French, if the Germans and Italians were to come into a co-operative framework on how we saw nuclear strategy, would not that be a far more effective way of standing up against the United States when we dislike their strategy on nuclear arms control? Would not Europe be in a much firmer and clearer position when arguing for maintaining SALT 2 limits if it also had its own worked-out view on NATO's nuclear strategy? Would not the partnership be more equal if, instead of the United States- speaking separately to the French, Germans, Italians and British, it could feel that there was an underlying cohesion on nuclear strategic matters among the main European partners? That is the logical development.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli referred.to the first decision by Clem Attlee and Ernest Bevin and the second decision by Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson to.earry on. Do not forget that it was the Labour party which carried on with the Polaris decision in 1964. That process has been carried through. The same applies to Chevaline. The decision was first made by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and carried on by Harold Wilson. It went to the Labour Cabinet in November in 1974 and was followed all the way through.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

It was not taken to the party.

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about whether it should or should not have gone to the party. The fact is that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup thought that the decision should be made in secrecy, Harold Wilson thought that it ought to be made in secrecy, I think rightly, and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth thought that the decision still needed to be made in secrecy. It was only announced in a flamboyant gesture with its code name by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) because he wanted to make a party political point in a rather cheap way somehow to justify his decision on Trident.

This is a deep question which goes to the root of a British foreign policy, but, more importantly, to the root of a European foreign policy.

Mr. McNamara

I am not necessarily disagreeing with the right hon. Gentleman's argument, but what worries me about it is that he is justifying the taking of these fundamental decisions in secret without the knowledge of Parliament, which had no knowledge of the price, and making the point that the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) revealed the programme only to make a cheap party political point. Does he not believe that the British people should have known about it?

Dr. Owen

There is a fair argument that the Chevaline project should have been announced to the House, but, in fairness, those who were involved in the early decision—I was involved in the latter part — genuinely thought that there were good security grounds for not revealing the information. It was not a new generation weapons system. It was a decision to retain the effectiveness of the Polaris warhead. After the anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed there was no need for it. I inherited the decision in 1977 and I take my share of responsibility for the decision not to cancel, it having gone on for four years and already cost £700 million. In 1977–78 we got its cost under control, but it ended up costing more than was estimated and at £1 billion it was a pretty expensive investment.

Chevaline was not of the same political gravity as the decision to go for nuclear weapons in the first place which was made in total secrecy by Clement Attlee and his Cabinet. That secrecy was maintained by the Churchill Government. Nor was it of the same quality as the decision made openly by Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson to go for Polaris. I say only that the Chevaline decision went to the Labour Cabinet in November 1974 and it would have been possible for those who objected strongly not to have acquiesced or resigned from the Government.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

When the Labour Government, headed by Clement Attlee, decided to go ahead with the British atom bomb, the Cabinet was not informed. That curious concept of democracy seems to be quite common in the Labour party.

Dr. Owen

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Conservative party's record, he will find that it has always been felt that some decisions involving nuclear weapons should be maintained on a need-to-know basis, and should not always involve the full Cabinet. I tend to think that that is wrong, but, whether it is right or wrong, it is done for the best of motives. In this country, the way to keep things secret is to be very rigid about how many people are involved. For many years, it has been understood that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer sometimes with the addition of one or two other senior Ministers provides a sufficient forum for a debate on nuclear questions.

Mr. Younger

And the Secretary of State for Defence.

Dr. Owen

Of course, I accept that.

I do not want to delve into the history of the matter, as I have already delayed the House too long. But these are serious questions and they need to be resolved. Behind it all is the concern felt throughout the defence firms and industries about the pressure on the conventional defence budget. There is also concern in my constituency. Only last Friday, the Western Morning News ran a headline about the further 40 per cent. reduction in the work load of naval ships for Devonport dockyard over the next eight years. The Secretary of State has yet to decide whether to go ahead with agency management of the dockyard. I hope that, now that he has got his wretched Bill, he will not go ahead with that. I hope that at the very least he will settle for a Government-owned plc, which will achieve some of the things that he wants in terms of civil servant numbers but will not fragment the dockyard. I also hope that he will now take a more strategic view of what is needed on the defence budget in relation to the financial constraints.

In his speech, the Secretary of State gave the impression that he would dribble out the decisions as they came along. That is probably the best political course, given that there will be a general election within the next two years. But it is the worst course for the morale of the armed services and for the morale of those who serve them. It would be much better if he made some of the difficult decisions that are needed, and if he took an open, honest and sensible strategic forward look in these Defence Estimates. If he did that, he would earn much more respect.

The Secretary of State must consider the whole question of purchasing Trident. I know that it is a verboten subject in this Government, just as the devaluation of the pound was once a verboten subject in other Governments, but the Prime Minister must be made to understand that it will be an open question until the next election. It would be of great value if the Government, as we ask in our amendment, considered how else we can make a practical contribution to the development of a European minimum nuclear deterrent without going on with the Trident system.

The Secretary of State will also have to look at some of the other areas of the defence budget, not least the balance between the surface ship and the undersea navy. He will also have to consider the Falklands garrison, the future of manned aircraft and missiles. With our European partners, the right hon. Gentleman will have to consider whether it is now time for Europe to have a medium-range missile launcher that could be used with either conventional or nuclear warheads.

This is a time for rethinking the budget. For the first time, the House accepts that there will be successive reductions in the defence budget. All of us should be prepared to reconsider past positions and to think long and hard about the future of our armed services and, in particular, about how we strengthen the European pillar of NATO.

6.23 pm
Sir Patrick Wall (Beverley)

I agreed with much of what the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) said, particularly at the beginning of his speech. I am concerned about the reduction in defence expenditure that has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Like the right hon. Member for Devonport, I believe that Europe is getting together—as all those in the North Atlantic Assembly know. Much work has already been done on common weapons systems, not only on a European scale, but between Europe and America.

I also agree about the grave danger posed by the Labour party's defence policy. Indeed, I disagreed with the right hon. Member for Devonport only about Trident. However, I shall not argue about that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave two valid reasons for continuing with Trident, and explained why there are no other options. Moreover, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) said that the Defence Committee, of which I was a member, and which sat during the last Parliament, spent about 17 months trying to find a cheaper alternative to Trident. However, we failed to find one, and strongly recommended Trident.

The North Atlantic Assembly has several committees, and one of the most important deals with arms control. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) wrote a report which has become a text book on nuclear weapons in Europe, and which is extremely valuable. The sub-committee that produced that report has now been renamed the special committee on nuclear strategy and arms control. That sub-committee, of which I am a member, went, not many months ago, to Geneva to examine the discussions going on about the different types of arms control and to consider how much hope of progress there was.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

The co-author of that report was the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright). Does my hon. Friend recall that, when the hon. Member for Woolwich was a member of the Select Committee in 1981, he, along with other hon. Members, came down very firmly in favour of Trident rather than cruise?

Sir Patrick Wall

I do not really want to start an argument between my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and the hon. Member for Woolwich. I said only that that report was extremely good. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden will agree with that.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I cannot let the comment made by the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) stand. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the various amendments to that report, he will find that I moved an amendment that made clear my concern about the major recommendation on Trident.

Sir Patrick Wall

Before that intervention, I was saying that the Sub-Committee visited Geneva and found that progress on various aspects of arms control was not very encouraging. There seemed to be some chance of eventual agreement only in relation to chemical and bacteriological warfare. The first article of the proposed treaty banned the stockpiling, manufacture, possession or use of chemical or bacteriological weapons. There seemed to be a consensus on that issue. But the other articles involving the disposal of existing stocks, verification and the organisation and inspection of that verification showed a considerable difference between the East and West.

The Soviets would accept on-site inspection, but they would not accept inspection of the destruction of production facilities or the American challenge system, according to which the Americans can say that they want to send in an inspector, because they believe that a Soviet factory, for example, is reproducing chemical weapons. It seemed that we might obtain a reasonable result in that area in about three years hence.

But it was also felt that unless the Americans produced binary weapons, the problems would not be resolved. After all, the Russians always respond to strength. The Russians know that they have far greater stocks of chemical and bacteriological weapons, and that the Americans only have old stocks in Germany, which they propose to move from Germany when they have produced new binary weapons. This American production may give the Soviets the nudge required to an agreement on the prohibition of chemical and bacteriological warfare.

The Chernobyl disaster is important. I believe that many more people will die of radiation sickness than have been annouced so far. About 40,000 people in a town called Pripyat, only a few miles from the reactor, were there for three days. I cannot imagine that any of them could survive. Kiev was only 80 miles away. We hear about radioactivity in Welsh lambs. What about the Ukraine, the bread basket of the USSR? There must be much more contamination there than the contamination about which we hear today.

I believe that the Russians are dispersing the population throughout the Soviet Union to prevent the knowledge of casualties leaking to the West. If that knowledge leaks out and shows that large numbers of people are suffering from radiation sickness, it might be possible to persuade the Soviet Union to agree to the international inspection of reactors. If we achieve that throughout the world the problem of the verification of arms control would be much easier, particularly in relation to bacteriological and chemical weapons. That might be the breakthrough for which we have been looking in arms control.

A committee of the North Atlantic Assembly visited the United States and found a complete difference of opinion between the academics over the strategic defence initiative. One side believed that the SDI would work and was in favour of it and the other that it could not work and was against it. That happened in each place that we went to. The Right wing was for it and the Left wing was against it. I am impressed by and in favour of SDI.

I am glad that this country has signed the MOU. I am very glad that the Secretary of State has set up an office in the MOD. I am glad that the Federal Republic of Germany has followed our example and that Japan and Italy are likely to do so. The subsequent research and development is vital to our future. It must be extremely important to the West, otherwise the Soviet Union would not continue to make every effort to stop this research and development.

I should now like to discuss American policy. I was with my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) in the United States. We were told that the United States conducted 25 per cent. more trade in the Pacific basin than in Europe. The Pacific basin is regarded as the most dynamic area in the world today. That is probably right. The United States is fed up that Europe does not spend more on its own defence. The average expenditure on defence is 3.5 per cent. of GDP in Europe, with Britain contributing 5.2 per cent. That is above the average, but the United States always talks about Europe as a whole. The United States contributes 6.9 per cent. and the Soviet Union over 14 per cent. of GDP. The United States obviously thinks that we in Europe should do more and I think that it is right.

The concept of isolationism and fortress America is growing. The Prime Minister's action in the Libyan raid was 100 per cent. successful and changed American opinion towards the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, towards Europe. Events have proved that my right hon. Friend was wholly right in what she did.

I warn the House of two dangers. The first is in decreasing British defence expenditure by 1.5 per cent. a year for the next three years. Under the Gramal-Rudman-Hollings Act in the United States there is a 4.9 per cent. cut this year and next year it will be as much as 20 per cent., of which 50 per cent. must come from defence. Thus the door is opened to all sorts of problems with the Soviet Union, which will see that the two major NATO nations are reducing defence expenditure drastically and that Mr. Gorbachev may be able to take over Europe without a war.

The Supreme Court is considering the Act to see whether it is constitutional. A decision is expected next month. I hope that it is declared unconstitutional because to eliminate the American deficit by 1991 requires a 10 per cent. reduction in defence expenditure in each year between now and then. This has to be done by law unless taxation in America is increased.

The two decisions taken together could have a drastic effect upon our European allies, who already do not contribute enough. If the Europeans consider our reductions and the American reductions they will contribute even less.

I turn to specific issues. It became clear at the recent symposium in Annapolis that if there were a third battle of the Atlantic it would be fought in the north Norwegian sea and the Baltic approaches to the Giuk gap. The need is therefore, for additional anti-submarine vessels and helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft and amphibious warfare vessels. The Secretary of State today accepted the need for 50 destroyers and frigates. I am also glad that the Government intend to put the Goalkeeper on the type 42 because air defence is badly needed.

If we went American, what would happen to the existing Nimrods selected for AEW? Will they be returned to the RAF, because it is important to have maritime patrol aircraft. We built 14 SSNs and are building four more and one SSK with another three being built. That is not bad for a country of this size. It certainly outbuilds the French.

In connection with amphibious warfare, if we are to hold northern Norway, which might be the target for Soviet attack should they believe that NATO is weakening, we must have amphibious vessels. There are only three places in northern Norway in which the roll-on/roll-off car ferries could land.

I am glad that we shall have a statement on the future of Fearless and Intrepid. I hope that they are to be refitted because we need their facilities of command as well as a helicopter landing deck and a deck for landing craft. I hope that they will be reinforced by adapted merchant ships which can provide the helicopter decks if they cannot provide the command facilities.

Sir Antony Buck

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) about the need for the replacement of amphibious capability. Does he agree that there has been one breakthrough in relation to northern Norway in the prepositioning of heavy supplies, which will result in an important strengthening of the position on the northern flank and which will make a considerable difference?

Sir Patrick Wall

That is right. My hon. and learned Friend is right. The Anglo-Dutch commando force has been there for about three or four years. Now the United States Marine Corps will have similar stocks positioned halfway down Norway which will be very effective. However, amphibious forces must be backed up by shipping. Since 1975 NATO shipping has declined by 36 per cent. I am told — and I believe it — that there is enough shipping to meet all NATO's commitments today. There are two problems. First, one third of that shipping is under flags of convenience. We might be able to get the ships back, but can we rely on the crews if they are Greek or Filipino? I have my doubts. Secondly, the reduction of shipping is continuing and within the next four years we may lose much more shipping. We need 2,800 shiploads a month for reinforcement and re-supply of economic shipping in war. They will not be available if the present reductions continue. The Government talk about this a great deal, but I should like to hear a definitive statement, not that things are all right now, but about what they intend to do if the number of merchant ships continue, to decline.

Perhaps the most important defence consideration of all is the Labour party's defence policy. In the past, the Labour party has taken one line when in opposition and another when in government. The line that it has taken in opposition has been changed rapidly when the Labour party has formed an Administration, to the relief of most people in Britain. But the next Parliament will be very different from the Parliaments of Gaitskell, Wilson or Callaghan. Opposition Members know that. The United States has made it clear — the hon. Member for Attercliffe knows this as well as I do because he has heard it said—that if the Labour party came into power and carried out its threats to remove all American nuclear weapons from this country fortress America and isolationism would increase. I do not believe that we could remain in NATO if the Labour party carried out that policy. Not only that, the Left-wing of the Labour party is bound to want to close American bases in this country, nuclear or not. I do not believe that we can remain in the club if the main membership is chucked out of it.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Gentleman is clearly worried about what will happen if Britain has a Left-wing Labour Government and we get rid of the American nuclear bases. After the visit of the Conservative Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Mulroney, to this country recently, there was no change in Canada's non-nuclear policy. Canada is a member of NATO and it has no nuclear weapons on its soil.

Sir Patrick Wall

The same can be said of Norway and Denmark, but they are non-nuclear powers. We are a nuclear power. There are only two nuclear powers in Europe, France and Britain. Does the hon. Gentleman want France to take the lead in Europe? If Britain, as a nuclear power, throws out not only its own weapons but those of its main ally as well, how can it possibly remain a member of NATO? The answer is that it cannot. This is why the Labour party will not take power after the next general election. The British people have more sense than to turn againt their main ally and towards Moscow, and that is what the Labour party's policy would mean.

6.42 pm
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I am glad to have the opportunity to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall). If the Labour party is elected at the next general election—that will become increasingly likely during the next 18 months or so—we shall almost certainly see a change in the bipartisan policy which has applied to defence matters since the second world war. The Labour party is committed firmly to cancelling Trident and decommissioning Polaris. Much more significant, it is committed to the removal of all American nuclear bases from Britain.

Mr. Ashdown

I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman has answered the question that the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) did not answer which is directed to the Labour party's policy on the decommissioning of Polaris. It appears that the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) takes a different view. In a recent article he stated: this is the big question, do we unilaterally get rid of Polaris whatever happens, or do we accept the Soviet proposals to negotiate about its future in the second stage of the arms negotiations? And this will have to be resolved before the next election". When reminded that this was Labour party policy, he said: Yes, but … a lot has happened since then … And this produces a situation which we can't ignore and which I'm sure we will address in a satisfactory way before the next election comes". That is clearly opposed to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) has said. What is the Labour party policy on this matter, or is it split upon it?

Mr. Strang

The Labour party's policy is quite clear.

Mr. Ashdown

What is it?

Mr. Strang

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the Labour party will have to be clear on this issue in its next manifesto. I accept that it was not clear in 1983. I did not rise, however, to participate in the debate with the intention of confining myself to responding to interventions made by alliance Members. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) knows that the alliance is split on replacing Polaris and on cruise missiles. When there was a vote on cruise, it was revealed that the alliance was split on the entire issue of defence policy.

Mr. Hind

The article to which the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) referred appeared in The Observer. When the issue of Labour party policy was put to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), he said: Denis will have to shut up about this. That was his comment.

Mr. Strang

I shall not give way again if that is the level to which the debate is to be reduced.

Fundamental to the debate is the "Soviet threat". I do not believe that western Europe should assume that the Soviet Union will not attack it militarily. I do not believe, however, that it has any intention of attacking us. I accept that, regardless of the motives of the Soviet Union, we in western Europe must recognise the power of the Soviet war machine. That is common ground.

The evidence of the past few years shows that the leadership of the Soviet Union genuinely wants progress on peace in world terms. It genuinely wants real reductions in its nuclear arsenal, the removal of nuclear weapons from central Europe and progress made in reducing the level of conventional forces in Europe, primarily because it wishes to devote more of the Soviet Union's resources to increasing the living standards of the people of the Soviet Union. I say "primarily", but I may be wrong about that. Given the developments that have taken place over the years, the Soviet Union no longer intends to try to spread its form of government — what it calls Communism—by military means, if it ever did.

It is interesting to read the first page of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". There is a quote from Lenin, who said: As long as capitalism and socialism exist we cannot live in peace. One or the other will triumph in the end That was said in 1920, and that probably was the position in the times of Lenin and Stalin. There was the belief that they might extend Soviet domination, and thus Communism, through the use of military means. There is a quote from Brezhnev and lastly one from Gorbachev, which reads: We state again and again that the outcome of the historical competition between the two systems must not be solved by military means. Our commitment to the policy of peaceful coexistence is evidence of the strength of the new social system and faith in its historical possibilities. All the evidence points in that direction. I accept that, like any other leader, Mr. Gorbachev has his hawks and his doves, but all the evidence is that the Soviet Union genuinely wants progress.

What is the position of the United States Administration? At best it can be described as confused. I would not say that there is confusion. The hawks are clearly in the ascendency. These are people who are opposed to arms control. They are open about that. There were those who used to speak in terms of winning a nuclear war. We had the Haig statement on a limited nuclear war in Europe.

I think that certain members of the United States Administration have educated themselves since then and that there are few in the Reagan Administration who would talk in terms of winning a nuclear war. There is, however, a strong body of opinion—I believe that it is still in the ascendancy— which believes that competition between the United States and the Soviet Union will move more and more in the United States' favour as it forces the Soviet Union to compete with its expenditure on arms. It thinks that it will be able to force the Soviet Union to divert more and more of its resources to military spending, but I think that that is profoundly wrong. I happen to think that the Soviet system—I do not support it— is probably better designed to carry a high-spending military programme than the American system. We know that the people of the Soviet Union are unable to elect an alternative Government.

There is a gulf between European and United States thinking on the issues. It is an insult to our intelligence to suggest—it is repeated many times—that the new, slick Gorbachev approach has driven a wedge between western Europe and the United States. What about the strategic defence initiative? The British Government have been subservient to the American Government on almost every issue. Europe, and even the substantial Right-wing elements in western Europe, were unhappy about the SDI.

Reference has been made to the NATO force goal in terms of chemical weapons. We know that, in military terms, it would make sense to have new binary chemical weapons in Europe. But why are they confined only to the United States? Of course, it is in deference to the different European attitudes. We have read that European Governments—I think that, for once, we can count the British Government in on it—were prepared to amount a campaign against the United States' intention to breach SALT 2 later this year. Libya has had a profound effect on European attitudes. It has certainly had a big impact on me. The Libyan bombing has made a big impact on many people in this country and Europe.

It is alleged that there is a plan to give NATO an out-of-area role. It is not just a question of American F111s and planes in Europe being used to bomb Libya. NATO may actually embark on a policy of policing the world. That policy has been proposed by Mr. Weinberger. The role of the American Administration in South America and their recent decision to commit themselves to massive additional funding of the Contras against the Government of Nicaragua are crucial to European attitudes to NATO. These represent real developments and a divergence between the attitudes of American people and the policies pursued by the American Administration, and the attitudes of European people, and even European Right-wing Governments.

Hopefully, we will soon see a change of Government in West Germany and Britain. We will see a change in our position and Governments in western Europe which are more representative of the aspirations of the vast majority of the people of Europe. All hon. Members must recognise that the divergence between Europe and the United States is a reflection of our different history, perspective and attitude to the Soviet Union.

I turn to some of the initiatives taken in respect of nuclear disarmament. I make no apology for concentrating my remarks on that. I recognise the importance of our defences, but I also recognise that things have changed completely since debates of 50 years ago or more. The overriding responsibility facing all Governments is to avoid a nuclear holocaust. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), who opened the debate for the Labour party, pointed out that the Chernobyl incident was tiny compared with even a nuclear weapon battlefield in central Europe.

During the Secretary of State's speech I intervened regarding the comprehensive test ban treaty. The evidence is that the British Government are moving position. The British Government have argued, as did the then Foreign Office Minister in reply to an Adjournment debate over a year ago, that the only objection they have to progress towards a comprehensive test ban treaty is the need for adequate verification. They wanted a comprehensive test ban treaty. That was their position at the non-proliferation review conference last year. That is different from the American position. The Americans stopped the talks on a comprehensive test ban treaty in 1980 because they wanted to continue testing. They made no bones about that.

Tremendous scientific progress has been made on verification. Leading United States scientists—I say this without fear of challenge — believe that we can have adequate verification. The Soviet Union has agreed to the installation of seismological centres in the Soviet Union to make verification effective. Only a few months ago American scientists agreed with Soviet scientists on the seismological centres which could be established in the Soviet Union. That is why the Secretary of State, in reply to my intervention this afternoon, left himself a cop out. He said that verification is the most important objection. The verification argument is becoming less tenable.

I believe that the Government were hypocritical when they replied to my Adjournment debate last year. Now that verification is becoming less tenable, they will adopt the American argument that they want to keep testing the weapons for storage reasons, and so on. The Americans want to test for SDI. They plan a nuclear pump for the X-ray lasers. We want to test the Trident warheads. It is fitting that the Government initiated a test last week, just before this debate.

A comprehensive test ban treaty is important because it will help to put the brake on the development of nuclear weapons in other parts of the world. It is tragic that the Government, who were one of the three signatories—the others were the Soviet Union and the United States—to the agreement on the initial partial test ban treaty have adopted such a negative stance at the conference on disarmament in Geneva.

I remind the House that the Soviet Union announced a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing — just as Kennedy did—which led to the partial test ban treaty. Instead of Britain responding to the moratorium and saying, "Let us see if we can make some progress on the basis of the Soviet moratorium", we are adopting a completely negative attitude. Mr. Gorbachev's proposals of 15 January are crucially important. They are probably the most important proposals to come out of the Soviet Union in 10 years. They attempt to make progress towards nuclear disarmament. They are so good that the Prime Minister did not understand them. She said in reply to a question by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that they did not involve the zero option.

There are three stages in the Gorbachev proposals. I shall concentrate on the first stage because it is designed to take us into the 1990s. The proposal involves the 50 per cent. cut in strategic nuclear weapons on which it is hoped the United States will negotiate seriously, and the removal of all intermediate range weapons from Europe—but not their transfer to Asia. The West used to put forward the zero option, that is, before it went ahead with the deployment of cruise and Pershing. The Prime Minister did not understand that. I do not think that she deliberately misled the House. I think that she genuinely did not realise how good the Soviet proposal was.

I do not suggest that President Reagan should immediately say, "We shall accept the proposals". The Soviet proposals have been improved since 15 January. They provide an excellent basis for progress. They have further developed the SDI proposals. They confirm that the United States can continue with research into SDI provided it negotiates a reasonable deal regarding the maintenance of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, and provided it avoids taking SDI further than the laboratory stage. Soviet scientists agree with leading American scientists that there is no way that SDI will work. It is backed by a huge military industrial complex, and I believe that it will be difficult to stop it.

I turn to the Vienna talks on mutually balanced force reductions. To hear some hon. Members speak, it would seem that they want to have American troops in Europe for ever. Labour party policy is for the mutual dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw pact. We hope that progress will be made, and that there will be real reductions in Soviet forces. We hope to reduce our forces also. Perhaps one day the American forces will return to America. Some hon. Members think that that is a terrible option in the future. It may be that progress can be made in Vienna. It may be that the proposals which the Soviet Union has put forward will be taken in a wider arena.

All the evidence points in the direction of the Soviet leadership wanting real progress. I urge the British Government to change their attitude. When the Prime Minister visited America to set the seal on her support for the strategic defence initiative I think that she described herself as Mr. Reagan's biggest fan in Europe. I thought that that summed up the relationship of the British Government with the American Administration. The relationship has been one—I say this on the basis of the Government's policy in the past six years— of supine subservience in every area of defence.

The Government may be in office for another 18 months. For goodness sake, let them stand up for the future of our people. Let them take an independent view. Let them be prepared to consider Europe's position. We do not want an anti-American policy. However, we want a British Government who are prepared to stand up for Britain. We want a Government who are prepared to argue for progress. If it is the case—I believe that it is—that the Soviet Union wants progress, let the British Government speak out.

6.59 pm
Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) will forgive me if I do not follow his argument. He spoke with such rapidity that I could not follow much of what he said. I think that at the end of his speech he was suggesting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was subservient to the American President. How little he knows our Prime Minister if he thinks that she is subservient to anyone. Like all of us, my right hon. Friend is a loyal ally. She has proved that in relation to Libya, to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred en passant. What would have happened if we had not agreed to the Americans using the F111s from our bases?

Mr. Wareing

What might have happened?

Sir Antony Buck

Undoubtedly, the Americans would have used less accurate and less appropriate aircraft from the American sixth fleet in the Mediterranean; there would have been more civilian casualties; and we would rightly have been blamed. They were performing a surgical exercise on an evil regime. It is odd that sometimes the Opposition almost speak in favour of someone like President Gaddafi.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we have not heard much of Gaddafi since that rightly punitive exercise?

Sir Antony Buck

I respectfully agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he is not tempting fate. It was right for Britain to allow the F111s to be used. Of course, it is easy to be a good, staunch ally when things are going well, but it is in times of difficulty one needs one's friends. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers were right to allow the F111s to be used as they were.

I shall try to keep my contribution relatively short because many hon. Members wish to contribute. I very much appreciate the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins). I should like to say how nice it is to see my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) on the Front Bench as Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. I am sure that he wil be happy during his time in the Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and I spent some of our happiest times as junior Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will, unlike us, go on to be a senior Minister.

This is a difficult time for all parties in defence matters. We are at the end of a fairly easy period during which defence expenditure increased by 3 per cent. a year in real terms. We should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, for the extraordinarily able report which we shall absorb later in greater detail. It will be of inestimable value in the single service debates which I hope will follow in due course. The report contains a great deal of material and is the result of the evidence of a large number of witnesses.

The more cosy period during which there was a 3 per cent. increase in real terms in defence expenditure has substantially enhanced our military capability. We have honoured to the full that 3 per cent. increase, and our present level of defence is much more satisfactory than it was.

I am not sure that we must leave our expenditure at that. Unless we are careful, there will be a decline From now on in real terms in our defence expenditure, as was pointed out by the Select Committee. I am not sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench will take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them and go to war with the Treasury—pending a possible breakthrough in MBFR talks or a further START round —to ensure that the real value of defence expenditure is kept up. I do not believe that we can continue with a 3 per cent. increase in real terms. That would be unrealistic. However, the Conservative party fought an election rightly emphasising that a Government's first duty is to see that the country is properly protected. I do not view with equanimity the thought of our defence expenditure decreasing in real terms over coming years. There may well be a need for a major exercise by those of us who are keen to maintain our defences to ensure that the Treasury is brought to heel, although that is not the easiest thing to do. If my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench take a robust line, they will find more support than they expect from Conservative Members and from a minority of Opposition Members.

I pay tribute to the work of our armed forces generally. I have the privilege of representing the northern part of a garrison town and I see a great deal of the armed forces. Last week, the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of which I am Chairman, went to Northern Ireland in relation to the duties of the ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I stayed on to see something of the work of our armed forces there. It would be inappropriate if, as chairman of the Conservative party parliamentary defence committee, I were to let any defence debate pass without paying fulsome tribute to the work that our armed forces have been doing for a long time in Northern Ireland. No other force inside or outside NATO could perform that task with such restraint and success over such a long period. We have just had to increase the number of troops because of the uncertainties in the region. Those who call themselves "loyalists" are the ones who are now causing especial difficulties for our armed forces. It is odd to define someone as a "loyalist" when he is causing such great difficulties with respect to law and order. I think that I carry the House with me in paying tribute to our armed forces for the work that they have done and are doing in Northern Ireland.

Over the past 12 months I have also seen something of the work done by our armed forces in BAOR. They are of the highest quality and match the very best of the armed forces in NATO. I used to think that it was appropriate to cut the number of our armed forces in Germany below our commitment of 55,000. I still have a sneaking suspicion that it might be more appropriate for our German allies to bear a greater share of the defence burden. According to the defence White Paper, the Germans spend only 3.3 per cent. of gross national product on defence, compared with our 5.2 per cent. of GDP. It is hard on us to pay more than the Germans to defend the Western world. It is not practical to reduce the numbers in BAOR, but the Government should consider ways of ensuring that the German Government pay a greater share, as they used to, of the cost of the armed forces which are there to defend the whole of NATO, including Germany. I am proud of the high standards maintained by our armed forces in BAOR.

I had the privilege of leading the first parliamentary delegation to the Falklands. The group included some of my "friends", in the non-Parliamentary sense, in the Opposition. In the Falklands we have a tenable situation. In the long-term we do not need large numbers of forces there. We have now built the second runway and we have a relatively small number of troops over there. Of course that costs a lot of money, but there are some military advantages to troops being there because they can train with a greater freedom than almost anywhere else. Perhaps some parts of Scotland could provide similar facilities, but they receive superb training in the Falklands. I suspect that a very good battalion going out comes back a crack battalion, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said, they may learn some fishing as well.

Therefore, there are spin-offs and it is not an impossible burden for us to maintain. In my view, what we need is one nuclear hunter-killer submarine on patrol off the coast there most of the time. We have 17 or so of those submarines and we might as well have one on patrol there to see whether any foolhardy successor in title to Mr. Galtieri were foolish enough to chance his arm. It would he a severe deterrent to know that there was a nuclear hunter-killer submarine there.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps one of the most overriding advantages of experience in the Falkland Islands, where I, too, visited British troops, is the remarkable nature of tri-service cooperation we have seen? Would he couple with his praise for all our services, whether in Northern Ireland, BAOR or the Falklands, thanks to the wives and families of those service men who have had a difficult time in the past few years?

Sir Antony Buck

As usual, I agree with every word of my hon. Friend. The families sustain considerable burdens because of the nature of the jobs the troops undertake. I represent Colchester, one of the oldest garrison towns, and I see something of that. Over the quarter of a century that I have had the privilege of being Member of Parliament for that area I have seen a much greater and more sensitive attitude adopted to the problems of what the forces always sweetly call married families. Our boys, to coin a phrase, are sustained by their families who give them tremendous support.

The Secretary of State mentioned our task force. Going back to my days as a Minister with responsibility for the Royal Navy, one the things that was particularly successful was started then. As we inevitably cannot have a Mediterranean fleet and a fleet in every part of the world, the Navy operates a powerful naval task force which is deployed at any one time and makes sure that our sea presence is known throughout the world. That helps the Navy to maintain a blue seas capability, which has stood us in good stead in the past.

It is a privilege to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the Government on having maintained our defence posture. They now have difficult decisions to make. My advice is to take on the Treasury and see that there is not a diminution, in real terms, in our defence effort over the coming years. I would not like to enter the next election as a supporter of a Government who had seen anything of a decline in our military capability preceding any breakthrough in disarmament across the iron curtain.

7.13 pm
Mr. John Silkin (Lewisham, Deptford)

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) will forgive me if I do not follow the line of his speech. I want to ask more fundamental questions than make a tour of the armed forces.

I have every sympathy with those who produce the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". Each year it becomes much more difficult to make it readable and the 1986 effort looks like one of Mr. Shah's publications—fuzzy, technicoloured and extremely boring. The White Paper is so turgid and stale quite simply because it has nothing new to say.

The Secretary of State, who is a kind and tolerant man and obviously took no great part in drafting the White Paper, talked about continuity. That is another word for saying that it is quite fossilised. It is a defence statement that looks to the past. Defence statements should look to the future. The generation that grouped together with the United States shortly after the end of the war in order to resist the real threat posed by Stalin's armies has gone— and so has Stalin, over 30 years ago. The world has changed.

The immediacy of world television has also had its effect. To the young, the neighbours they are enjoined by the Bible to love as themselves can live out their lives 4,000 miles away and still be their neighbours; hence the immediate and heartening response to the appeals for the starving in Africa. The Sport Aid participants, it is well to remember, could be seen on the screens of most countries, including the Soviet Union. To the young, the nuclear world of their parents, which was new and exciting even as late as the 1960s, has become the nightmare of Chernobyl, which perhaps more than any other single event — many hon. Members have referred to it—has shown the need for international co-operation in the area of nuclear power as well as in every other area.

If ever there was a time to rethink the whole question of defence, including the role of NATO — I do not disagree with that—it is now. If we are going to rethink that role, we must rethink the most important aspect of the situation today, the role of the superpowers. Every hon. Member felt enormous relief when President Reagan consented to meet Mr. Gorbachev in Geneva last year. It was as though a great cloud had been lifted from us. The terrifying fear of the world was the hostility of those two superpowers.

I am told that a few years ago at the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government a senior venerable statesman spoke about the fight of the superpowers in relation to the fight between elephants that took place in his own continent of Africa. He said that when two elephants fight one another they damage not only one another but all the villages within miles. No doubt that is true, and that is what the world was fearing. I am told that another Commonwealth leader, on hearing that story, said that it is even worse when elephants make love.

A world dominated by two superpowers agreeing among themselves to divide up the world in a new Yalta is something which the rest of us can be frightened of, too. It is not a long way off. They divide the world into zones of influence. Why does not the Soviet Union actively intervene in South America? Why does not the United States actively intervene in Afghanistan? The answer is that there are zones of influence and they automatically leave it to one another. A world dominated by those two superpowers is a world in fear.

If those are the two elephants we are frightened of now, there is another one coming up. I am looking ahead to the next 20 years when China will be a superpower. The House will recall that Napoleon said: Let China sleep for when she wakes the rest of the world will tremble. A world dominated by three superpowers will not be a safer world; it will be a much more dangerous world.

I am glad that the Secretary of State did not boast as much as his predecessor did about the 40 years of peace in Europe. I think that he understands that in the rest of the world there have been about 150 wars since the end of world war 2. That is because the two superpowers fight their wars through their surrogates. They supply arms to countries in the Third world, Africa and Latin America. That is where the danger is coming, above all.

I do not think that we can do this straight away as I do not believe that one can automatically change the whole attitude to defence, but it must develop over many years. Over the next many years I would rather like to see a looking ahead by this country above all other countries at what will happen. I admit that we live in Britain, not Utopia, but that is no reason why we should not look ahead to the next generation. To the young, we are becoming more irrelevant in our old defence postures. I know because I adopted many of those postures myself. I, too, felt in 1949 that the menace of Stalin and of the Soviets had to be met; hence NATO and the desire for a strong NATO, in which the United States, as the only nuclear power, was essential. But there are new ideas now, and it is our duty to take account of those new ideas.

We should work together with all other countries that are willing to join us to create a more effective way of obtaining and controlling the peace of the world. It is not that we are short of ideas; there are plenty of them. The most imaginative at the moment is one in the book entitled "Prescription for Peace" by a former hon. Member, Henry Usborne. It looks to a federation of neutral nations with internal weapon limitation and a minimal constitution, independent and free from interference in domestic affairs. The idea is that such a grouping would take its place with the three superpowers as the fourth superpower, in the Security Council, but without the excess of armaments that the other three have or wish to have. That is one possibility.

The second possibility is dialogue with the non-aligned countries. Only two years ago we had the five-continent initiative, when six countries approached the Soviet Union and the United States and said, "Why can't you get together and talk to one another?" It was the intervention of those six countries that started the dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union, so there is no reason why we should not do that. We have a perfect weapon for peace — it is strange how one always uses military metaphors in defence debates. We have a weapon for peace because we have a Commonwealth, which has a tremendous advantage, in that it has, all over the world, a grouping of nations that understand one another and have a common tradition and history. They can talk to various people in their continents. That is another possibility.

A third possibility is an increasing dialogue with the individual countries in the Warsaw pact by the NATO countries, because we have a great deal in common with one another. We have a common frontier. We have a common desire for peace. I speak for the countries that are not the superpowers, both here and on the other side of the iron curtain, in the Warsaw pact countries. I believe that there is a common desire to get the superpowers off our backs.

During the debate we have heard a number of phrases such as, "Let's be careful, chaps, because if we are not, the Americans may get cross with us. They may actually leave NATO. We never know what the Americans will do." Some of us are getting a bit sick of all that. It is about time that the Americans had a little humility, too. There is the emotional blackmail of saying to us, "Unless you agree to United States nuclear bases in Britain, we shall pull out of NATO,"; or, "Unless you agree to help us bomb Libya, we shall pull out of NATO." That is beginning to be a little counter-productive.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that in the United States there is a large body of public opinion that feels exactly as he does?

Mr. Silkin

Indeed, I do. I have been careful in talking about the American President and the American Administration. It is not for my hon. Friend or for me to interfere in the domestic policy of the United States, but we are entitled to say that the American Administration have been taking a rather too arrogant view of matters at the moment, just as those in the Warsaw pact are entitled to say the same about the Soviet Union. That is why it would be a bad thing to disband NATO. It would be calamitous. There is a way of talking across that frontier to people who feel very much as we do. That should be encouraged.

The House knows that I have always taken the view that, whether in the service of the United Nations, the Commonwealth, NATO or any other grouping, Britain should be capable not only of defending herself but of providing the means to assist the world's defences. That means that her pre-eminence in maritime matters must be preserved.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) asked the Secretary of State a pertinent question just before he finished his speech. He asked him what the Government intended to do about the decline in the Merchant Navy. The Secretary of State was a sailor, too, and he knows the point. It was implicit in what the right hon. Member for Western Isles said that, without the Merchant Navy, Britain cannot have a Navy. We all know that the Navy in time of war and in time of difficulty relies on its Merchant Navy and on the Royal Naval Reserve. These days, the RNR includes everybody who comes in. Only the other day an RN officer said to me—it was something that we used to say the other way round during the war—"Of course, you chaps who were in the reserve were the people who manned our ships in wartime. We kept them going in peacetime." There would be no manning of ships in wartime if it were not for the Merchant Navy.

This is where table 1.4 in the second volume of the defence Estimates comes in. I hope that my hon. Friend and shipmate, the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), when he winds up, will draw further attention to it. The table is of officers, ratings and cadets in the Merchant Navy. It is interesting to note that it omits the years 1979 and 1986. I do not blame whoever wrote the technicolor version for omitting those years. I would, too, if I wanted to be selective, but I do not. I want to be truthful.

These are the figures. In 1979, 31,439 officers were registered. In 1986 the figure is 13,371. In 1979 there were 28,942 ratings and in 1986 the figure is 17,680. There were 6,318 cadets in 1979 and today there are 1,016. That is the future of Britain. Earlier we heard a great deal about ships and shipbuilding, and about warships. We did not hear anything, except from the right hon. Member for Western Isles, whose question was not answered, about those who were to man the ships if ever there was a state of emergency. On that basis, and if that trend continued for another five years, there would not be a Merchant Navy left.

So what does it all amount to? It amounts to this. Two volumes of monotonous writing and selective and partisan statistics do not make up for the mortal blow that is being dealt to the future of our country. They do not make up for the lack of a coherent defence policy, they do not give hope to the young, and, above all, they do not make up for a lost opportunity at a crucial moment in the history of the world.

7.29 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I enjoyed listening to many of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) who chose this occasion to make a thoughtful and, on the whole, constructive speech. However, as he would expect, I did not agree with his conclusions.

I believe that we have a very coherent defence policy. In view of the changing conditions in the world, I believe that, as staunch allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, we should be ever quick to take new initiatives and to seize the opportunities that are presented from time to time to explore the Soviet mind to see how far we can have a mutual reduction in conventional and nuclear arms.

As a chairman of the military committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, I do not see a need for a fundamental review either of this country's defence policies or of the NATO posture generally. One of the worst things that we can possibly do is from time to time to dig up the roots of the military commanders of NATO. I have no doubt that modifications could be made. I am sure that if progress is made in Geneva and if we can make some progress in the multi-balanced force reduction talks in Vienna — and there are signs of hope in that direction—we will find more fruitful opportunities for exchanging views with the Soviet Union and a more intimate dialogue with other members of the Warsaw pact. As the right hon. Member for Deptford said—and I agree with him on this point—dialogue between the Warsaw pact and NATO countries is not just a matter for the Soviet Union and the United States. The President of the North Atlantic Assembly, a distinguished American senator, persuaded a number of us at a recent meeting in Luxembourg that the time had come for an exchange of views between members of the assembly and, it was hoped, one of the Warsaw pact countries.

Many of us are alive to the fact that, with the talks going on at Geneva, with the signs that we have had from Moscow that Mr. Gorbachev believes that there should be a renewal of disarmament negotiations—although we have yet to get down to some of the more practical details — it would be foolish to assume that our strategy, tactics and attitudes should be locked in the cement of the memory of the creation of NATO some years ago.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Deptford will forgive me if I do not go further down that road. After hearing comments about nuclear philosophy and the apocalyptical statements that have been made today and other wide ranging surveys, I shall confine the main burden of my remarks to a narrower topic. In illustrating this narrow point I may be—though I hope not—a little tedious. This point has a strong bearing on cost, and that, after all, has been one of the features of the debate.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Deptford did not mean this, but it does not lie well in the mouth of any Opposition Member to criticise the Government for being cost effective in defence after years of considerable increases in real terms in defence expenditure on which we had given the lead in western Europe. The time has come for the Government to consider—and rightly so, in view of the other pressing demands on public expenditure—inviting the armed services to exercise restraint during the next few years.

I accept the Government's policy, but I join my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) in making it clear to the Government that, as much as I understand the need for restraint in public expenditure in defence — and we cannot continue increasing defence expenditure in real terms year after year—I hope that, if the Government thought that there was any question of a real diminution in the effectiveness of our armed forces, they would not hesitate to take the appropriate action in Cabinet and argue that course most forcibly. I have no doubt, as my hon. and learned Friend said, that the Government would have plenty of friends on the Conservative Benches in support of such a course.

I want to consider the effects of competition on the costs of procurement. The Government have recently introduced a policy of competitive buying. The White Paper states that in terms of the volume and value of contracts, which amount to £7.5 billion, no less than 64 per cent. by value has been placed as a result of competition or from the competitive environment. That is an encouraging figure.

I have several reservations about applying a competition policy inflexibly, and I would appreciate a comment on these points from my hon. Friend the Minister—and I welcome him to his new post—when he replies to the debate.

My first point is that in applying a competition policy, I hope that due attention will he paid not simply to short-term cost benefits but to the effects on the companies themselves. I am nal making a bid for a soft, cosy life for defence manufacturers at the taxpayers' expense. A competition policy should be flexible for several reasons. It should be flexible on strategic grounds. We know that to maintain a vital, technical, scientific and manufacturing resource in this country, it is sometimes essential to our national interest to maintain a British source. That is essential in defence terms and also in relation to the impact that such orders can have on the capability of some of our manufacturers to manufacture in the civilian sector.

There are also cases when, in order to encourage the growth of a specific technology—and the Department of Trade and Industry is aware of this—it will be in our longer term interests to abate short-term cost saving benefits, especially when new emerging companies are struggling to establish a bridgehead in a new technology. The initial procurement costs of buying from such a company, which may gain a contract, may be higher than buying from abroad. However, the long-term financial and strategic benefits may be the better bet.

It is understandable, in the light of some of the Public Accounts Committee reports, that our sympathy should be a little short when we hear tales of how badly done by the larger companies have been at the hands of the Ministry of Defence, especially when such companies have a monopoly. Those companies which have a monopoly pose a problem. If a large company has a monopoly., we should be prepared to accept that there are ways of building in incentives to keep costs down. To assume that monopoly pricing will take us to the cleaners because there is no other British competitor and the only other source is a foreign competitor may not be the right reason for buying abroad even if the price is less.

Clearly these are difficult problems. I am not arguing for protectionism. Successive Governments since the war thought it right to buy the best equipment for our armed forces — which are entitled to the best equipment —irrespective of the short-term unpopularity of buying abroad. Clearly the Government have a responsibility to the taxpayer as well as to the defence manufacturers. That is why I and my colleagues welcome the Government's steps to infuse a competitive spirit.

National competitive buying poses a threat to national frameworks in Europe. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) touched on tips in the nuclear context, but, given time, I do not doubt that he would have gone wider. I do not think that any of us believe that we can achieve economies of scale in defence purchasing if we insist on restricting our purchases on grounds of national need to our national armouries, offsetting any criticism of protectionism by making an occasional foreign purchase. The cost of modern defence technology, and of research and development into it, is escalating so quickly that we must consider the size of the end product's market. None of the European nations' national markets is big enough to support companies such as the ones that I have in mind. The pace of industrial technology is quickening too fast for us.

The philosophy of aggressive entrepreneurialism is nowhere better epitomised 'than in the United States, but the United States has considerable advantages. We have bought excellent equipment from the United States and will no doubt continue to do so. It is tempting to assume that, with more aggressive entrepreneurial techniques, British defence manufacturers would be able to emulate the United States. I have reservations about that. It is too often assumed that, with a bit more get up and go, we could find a lucrative, permanent and strong base in the American market, so we do not need a European policy. It is especially tempting for us in Britain to assume that we can have the best of both worlds. As was said during the Westland debate, we tend to think that we can dine with the Americans when it suits us and with the French or Germans when that suits us. I do not believe that we have such a luxury. The protectionism and legal devices that impede entry into the American market are stringent and formidable. They are also the subject of intense lobbying in Congress. I do not complain about that, but it is a tough, rough market.

A fundamental difference between us is that the United States has many more substantial companies than we have. Their order books are fatter, their defence budget is more substantial and their internal market, which produces longer production runs, is therefore more profitable. It is quite ludicrous to assume that, if we adopted more aggressive attitudes, we could get more than a toehold in the United States market. We may have some successes from time to time, as with the Rapier or the Harrier—

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

And the Hawk.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Indeed. Going way back into history, we had some success with the Canberra, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) flew; but the experience of most British and European companies is that, although they may get an initial order, the repeat order—the big one—goes to an American company. I quite understand that. America is 3,000 miles away from the source of production, and that must add to its qualms about pledging itself to buying too much from abroad.

The European market is more compact, so if British and other European defence manufacturers are to develop expensive and sophisticated technologies of a quality that we want and at a price that we can afford, we must increasingly rely on our ability to collaborate. That is essential, as we cannot assume that we will have a quantitative superiority over the Soviet Union. We have so far had a qualitative superiority, but unless we collaborate more we will not be able to maintain it. That means creating a wider European market.

I am aware that collaboration does not always cut costs. There have been examples of projects that have been to our benefit and others that have proved tremendously expensive. People think that Tornado is a fine example of collaboration. It is. Technically it is very good, but it is tremendously expensive. At £30 million a copy, it is some aeroplane and the costs of development exceed that of the Trident system. The European defence base has been too fragmented. There are too many different pieces of equipment which are designed to achieve the same purpose. There is still too much national division of the European defence cake at the expense of European NATO agreement about what should be made and by whom. We would say that the biggest offenders are the French. They are extremely difficult to co-operate with. To them, European co-operation means accepting French design, French production, except, perhaps, a bit of the spare wheel. Those who speak to the French will learn that they think that we can be pretty bloody, too. I suspect that all nations have good grounds for criticising each other, but unless we step up the collaboration we shall all go down the sink together.

The consequences for Europe would be serious. We would lack an industrial defence base from which we could expect a spin-off for civilian demands when the de-industrialisation of western Europe as a whole—we hear much about de-industrialisation in Britain—in the face of competition from the far east becomes an even more serious threat to our livelihood.

Our growing dependence on the United States is greeted by some with envy and by others with crossness. The right hon. Member for Deptford said that he wanted them off our back, just as he thought that the Warsaw pact countries sometimes want to get the Soviet Union off their backs. I do not share his feeling about the United States. We are all in it together as democracies, and I thank God that America's strength, wisdom and strong political sense and understanding of democracy is with us. I do not believe that it is healthy for our relationship, however, for us to become overdependent on the United States for our military and technical needs.

America expects Europe to do more for itself and it is puzzled that we do not get our act together. The act will be got together not by knocking the heads of defence manufacturers, but by political will and leadership. With that, the rest will fall into place. I say political leadership because all the companies that I have in mind are extraordinarily dependent — some too dependent — on Government contracts. That is why they look to politicians for a lead.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to give us the assurances that I have asked for: that we shall sustain and strengthen the drive towards shared procurement objectives and reinforce the excellent work of the independent European procurement group. There has been much rubbishing of Trident today, and far more goes on outside the House. It is bound up with the cost of defence equipment. I doubt whether we would hear quite so much about it if we were on a rising tide of expenditure. Criticism that Trident takes up too large a proportion of defence equipment expenditure does not stand up. We must ask whether Trident gives good value for money and whether it will do what it is designed to do.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) said—he is Chairman of the Defence Select Committee which has gone into this matter in more detail than anyone else — if we scrapped Trident tomorrow and instead spent the money on conventional weapons, it would not buy us the equivalent of anything more than three armoured divisions. It would he equivalent to a mere one sixth of the annual expenditure on service pay and allowances. I do not think that three armoured divisions have much of a deterrent value, which is what we are talking about. The purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter.

As we all know, modern conventional weapons are not cheap. In relative terms they are more expensive and add only marginally to our defence capabilities. The arguments against Trident which the Labour party peddles so enthusiastically are that conventional weapons are better and cheaper.

We did not hear that many years ago. Today the Labour Front Bench pledged that the money saved on Trident would be spent on conventional weapons, although that has been denied by other Labour Members. I shall believe that when I see it. Even if that were done, the money would not be well spent. There is no reason why we should deny ourselves our nuclear deterrent. In reality, the real reason for the Labour party's hostility to a British nuclear deterrent, whatever the cost, is its desire to discredit the Government's commitment to our nuclear defence posture.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Devonport has left his place. He occupied the House for some considerable time—I make no complaint about that— with his thoughtful and provoking speech. We all know why the alliance cannot agree. It has nothing to do with the merits of Trident and everything to do with the fact that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) cannot persuade his party to follow him because it cannot agree on a successor to Polaris. Indeed, from time to time we are not even sure what the right hon. Gentleman thinks.

We all know that it was right to make the decision to replace Polaris when we did because of the long lead time to install a new system. I should like the right hon. Member for Devonport to publish some figures showing the savings we would make if we adopted his solution. He suggested that a cruise alternative would be effective. Many people who have considered alternatives do not believe that a cruise system would be effective as an investment to last well into the next century.

Obviously, the United States has cruise missile systems launched from submarines and surface vessels and landlock sytems, but it has a much broader canvas for nuclear weapons. We must put our money where it will have the most effect. We have made the right decision, and I congratulate the Government on their courage and, above all, their decisiveness.

7.52 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

The hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) should not be so complacent about the alleged homogeneity of the Conservative party. Certainly the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) gave a warning to his party towards the end of his speech. It may have been rather disguised and some of it may have been in code, but people who think seriously about defence—I am told that there are some in that category in the Conservative party—will be exceedingly worried about what the Conservative party is doing.

There seems to be euphoria about the fact that Polaris will be replaced by Trident. However, the White Paper has not addressed the question of how to reconcile the Government's aspirations, their commitments, and resources, although the Defence Select Committee has. If the resources available to the Government decline, there is no way that their defence policy will encompass the finest nuclear weapon system available in the West and adequate conventional defence.

A year ago the Committee made a report on defence commitments and resources, and the Government treated us to a rather soporific reply. Indeed, it was so bland and awful that the Committee, despite its large Government majority, stated: The Government's Observations on our 1985 Report demonstrated either an unacceptable lack of frankness or an unwillingness to come to terms with the problem. I do not wish to appear Wilsonian in my "I told you so", but about six years ago myself and some others said that Trident would squeeze a great deal from our conventional defence budget, and many of the chickens are now coming home to roost. If supporters of Trident compare carefully the costings for what the Government hope to do with what they will have the resources to do, they will have far greater anxieties than they have been minded to admit.

Defence expenditure is Falling. As an hon. Gentleman has said, the White Paper bears the hallmarks of Eddie Shah. I think it bears the hallmarks of Jeffrey Archer because there are elements of sheer fiction, and perhaps Alan Ayckbourn contributed an element of farce to it. As the Committee's report stated, defence expenditure of £19 billion will decline in real terms over the next three years, possibly by 7 per cent., yet our commitments are increasing. Over the next few years we must pay for many major items, so the funding gap is growing ever wider.

When we told the former Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Henley (M r. Heseltine)— it is hard to keep up with them and it is almost like being a machine gunner in the first world war —that there could well be a 7 per cent. reduction over the next two or three years, he said that it was "unthinkable". The unthinkable has almost happened. The Committee's figures show that defence expenditure could well fall by 7 per cent. Government supporters will say, "But look how wonderfully we have done since 1979. There has been a major increase in defence expenditure". That is true. But when that expenditure is diminished over a period, how long will it be before those gains are dissipated? Not all Conservative Members are as enamoured of Trident as the hon. Member for Wealden. There are major problems and even the Government are now beginning to admit that publicly. They say that difficult decisions must be made, and if ever there was a verbal understatement that phrase shows it.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

I know that the hon. Gentleman follows these matters closely. May I remind him that there have always been difficult decisions in defence? The Government are not talking about difficult decisions which are catastrophic.

Mr. George

Perhaps in two years' time we shall be able to evaluate whether the massaging of the Government—the improvement in contracting out the reorganisation—will suffice. I do not remotely think that it will narrow the funding gap. If Conservative Members would like greater information, they will not get it from the Ministry of Defence. Certainly it is worrying for those who believe in defence. I would not like the public to think that believers and supporters of defence reside only on the Conservative Benches. I have always taken the view, and I have never expressed the slightest divergence from it, that the essential prerequisite of the state is to defend itself. It may be regrettable that large sums must be spent on defence, but it is a fact of life. Any party which ignores that central principle will, rightly, face the wrath of the electorate. The Labour party should listen to what many of its supporters are saying and to what the electorate said in 1983.

The Labour party has to present to the electorate a viable defence policy, whatever form it takes. We shall pay a heavy price if we fail to convince the electorate that the Labour party is seriously interested in defence.

I have no shame in saying that I support NATO, or that the United States is not an army of occupation. The United States presence in Europe is central to its own security and that of Europe. I regard with considerable disquiet movements in Europe and the United States that think that there is an alternative to that arrangement. We are told that, since NATO was founded in 1949, circumstances have changed. The Soviet Union is infinitely more powerful now than it was in 1949 when NATO had a nuclear monopoly.

I have some anxieties. Although I regard many elements within the current United States Administration as being worrying, as they have an exaggerated perception of the threat, my worry is balanced by my anxiety about those in my party, in the country, or in Europe who underestimate that threat. One of the essential prerequisites to this Alliance, which I want to see survive until such time—it will not be in the immediate future—that alliances wither away, is that it should be strong. The future of security and detente will not be achieved by posturing and thinking about phoney ideas of neutralism which were dismissed by Attlee and his colleagues in the 1940s, and would be dismissed today by the electorate.

We must consider how we shall proceed as an Alliance. It is important that there should be a proper definition of the threat, although this is easier said than done. We hear in America of the so-called "realistic" school of international relations, which often exaggerates the threat, as opposed to the Utopian school in some parts of Europe, which thinks that there is no threat. Both views are mistaken.

The CND sends us briefings. In a recent one, it cited the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which said: Our conclusion remains that the overall balance continues to be such as to make military aggression a highly risky undertaking … there would still appear to be insufficient overall strength on either side to guarantee victory. Perhaps it would be appropriate to cite other sections of the report for the sake of completeness. It says: The West has largely lost the technological edge in conventional equipment … there is still sufficient danger in the trend to require remedies in the Western Alliance. The threat to NATO is still serious. While some Labour Members and some people outside are quick to point out that there are weapons in NATO pointing towards the Soviet Union, my worry is that there are weapons pointing towards us to which we should also pay attention. For instance, the 22 Yankee class submarines, the 37 Delta class submarines, the three Typhoon class ballistic missile submarines, the 1,398 land-based intercontinental missiles are all worrying, as are the long-range and medium-range bombers, the Bears, the Bisons, the Backfires, and the Badgers, the Blinders and the Fencers carrying nuclear weapons, all of which could threaten the United Kindom.

It is important to get the threat into perspective. It would be nonsense beyond words to imagine that the Soviet Union is simply waiting at the starting line for the signal to pour into Western Europe. However, it is behaving like that, not because of a change of heart at the Kremlin, but because NATO presents a proper and just about adequate nuclear and conventional weapons deterrent. Should that change, we should be in some difficulties.

Let us get the threat into a proper perspective, but there must also be a redefinition of Alliance relations. The conditions have changed since 1949. Europe is much stronger economically, so it wants to be taken seriously and has to get its act together institutionally. There are the beginnings of it in the independent European programme group, the Western European Union, and the Eurogroup. Although the EEC does not have a security brief, it has a role in improving defence equipment collaboration.

Let us redefine the US-European relationship so that we do rather more than we have done in the past. Perhaps then Europe will be taken more seriously. Let us get the East-West relationship better organised. Although I have spent most of my time talking about defence and security, we cannot—and I do not include arms control simply for ritualistic purposes—we should not ignore the recent Soviet moves. We must see whether they are real, or simply posturing, with a desire to divide NATO—something for which they are showing an increased sophistication. Let us explore the Soviet offer to see whether it is consistent with our security and, if it is, let us proceed to a decent arms control arrangement. However, we must not seek that simply for the sake of getting an arrangement. That happened before, when détente was not as successful as we should have liked. Let us not forget that we should be getting right not just West-West relationships and the East-West relationship, but the North-South relationship. Tensions emerge from outside the NATO area and we have to do more thinking about relations with the Third world.

The difficulties that we are experiencing in NATO are not merely the extensions of old differences. There is always a crisis — the neutron bomb, the intermediate nuclear force, the follow on force attack, emerging technologies, the strategic defence initiative, chemical weapons, out-of-area, and this year it is Libya. Is it simply another twist, another crisis, that the organisation can absorb, or are we, as some people fear, in the midst of qualitatively different trends? Are the Europeans and Americans drifting apart? Some would gleefully observe that development, smile, and see it as the fulfilment of all their wildest desires. I can say without fear of contradiction that the future of security is through NATO and the Harmel principles of detente and deterrence. It is only through a strong Alliance working for better cooperation within it and better relations with our potential adversaries that security will be, if not guaranteed, enhanced. I reject out of hand those who argue that pursuing a low defence commitment, a form of unarmed, or even armed, neutralism, will solve all our problems. It will not.

8.8 pm

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

It is a pleasure to follow the positive speech of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). It was reassuring for some of us on these Benches who greatly fear for the mainstream policy of the Opposition party on defence matters. He referred to the importance of being a member of NATO and to the fact that a proper and adequate nuclear and conventional deterrence is essential to our defence capability. The Estimates address that problem.

I shall look at some of the basic underlying problems facing us today. The only direction from which we can see a major threat to the Western and British interests is from the Warsaw pact, dominated by the Soviet Union. Any nation that spends 15 per cent. of its gross domestic product on weapons, compared with 5.2 per cent. in Britain and 6.9 per cent. in the United States, clearly shows what it is about. It outnumbers us in nuclear warheads, in conventional troops in Europe and in armed forces. On total troops we are outnumbered four to three, on tanks two to one, on anti-tank weapons four to three, on artillery three to one, and on fixed-wing tactical aircraft two to one. It must not be forgotten that, in addition, 300,000 tonnes of chemical weapons are stockpiled in the Soviet Union and that every unit of battalion strength in the Red Army has an offensive chemical warfare unit. It is unfortunate that, because of that and the continuing Soviet advance in the production of chemical weapons, the Americans, having not produced any chemical weapons since 1969, are now thinking positively of trying to redress that imbalance.

The development of that enormous amount of military hardware steins only from a fear on the part of the Soviet Union of attack from the Western nations. We must get inside the thinking and the psyche of the Soviet Union politicians and begin to understand what motivates them. For that, we must consider history. We must consider 1812 and 1941. Few of us who have studied history will forget the famous cartoon of Stalin and Hitler shaking hands over the dead body of Poland. The betrayal of that treaty must be burnt into the pysche of the Soviet Union and its politicians, who reckon that between 1941 and 1945 more than 20 million of its citizens were killed in defence of their country. That event dictates the policy of the Soviet Union, its attitude towards the creation of buffer, states that make up the Warsaw pact and its intervention in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Afghanistan. One way in which a country can defend itself is to dominate the countries around it, accordingly manipulate the world and world opinion to achieve protection for itself and, at the same time, dominate the sphere of activity where it is the major power.

Fortunately for the Government, the Defence Estimates do not give any comfort to the Soviet Union, either in its obsession with being attacked or its desire to dominate the world in its sphere of activity. Unfortunately, the Liberal party's defence policy and that of the Labour party offer much comfort to the Kremlin in that regard, because unilateral disarmament will do nothing but weaken the position of NATO — that essential part of our defence policy which was rightly mentioned by the hon. Member for Walsall, South. He said that he thought that NATO presents a proper, and just about adequate nuclear and conventional weapons deterrent. That is what the Defence Estimates are about. As long as that remains the position, we shall have a free Western world, unbullied and not blackmailed by any desire in the Warsaw pact to expand its world domination.

What about the defence policy and the position of Britain and NATO? We talk about the Soviet Union being a superpower, but it is only a superpower militarily. When it is compared with the EEC and the United States in economic terms, it is not a superpower. It is a superpower only in the number of its troops, its weapons and the amount of money that it continues to pump into its armed forces at the expense of its people's quality of living, housing and basic domestic consumer goods.

What has brought the recent advances in negotiations on disarmament of conventional and nuclear weapons at all levels? The reason simply is that, through the defence policy pursued by Britain, the United States and NATO, we have shown our determination to defend ourselves from aggression and potential domination by the deployment of cruise missiles, by the introduction of Trident and by the maintenance of our defence commitment by increasing it by 3 per cent. every year during the past five years.

In addition, the SDI programme— the Secretary of State recently announced the £6 million investment in Britain and the agreement signed between the United States and the British Governments — will defend our way of life and our standard of living. I and many Conservative Members believe that only that determination, that belief in the need to protect our way of life and expand our defence capability, if necessary, brought the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. That has resulted in the offers that have been made for nuclear disarmament of different sorts. The Soviet Union recognises that we shall continue as we have done.

We tell the Soviet Union that we shall negotiate disarmament, because that is what we want, but we shall negotiate only from strength. That is where the Labour and Liberal policies on defence break down. They can never negotiate from strength. If one does not negotiate from strength — if one has nothing to negotiate — one will achieve nothing. One will merely weaken the NATO Alliance.

Trident plays an important part in Britain's contribution. The cost of the programme is £7.5 billion but it is spread over 15 years. It amounts to only 6 per cent. of the equipment grant. It is good value for money in defence terms.

Mr. George

From where does the hon. Gentleman get the figure of £7.5 billion? The Select Committee on Defence seems to differ with him, and I suspect from the grimace on the face of the Minister that he believes that it is not £7.5 billion but more than that.

Mr. Hind

The £7.5 billion came from the Defence Estimates. If I am wrong, I am ready to be corrected.

Mr. Lee

To put the record straight, we are talking about a figure of just under £9.9 billion over a 20-year period.

Mr. Hind

I apologise to the House. My figure is based on what must be spent. I shall return to that point. The Minister corrects me and says that the figure is £9.9 billion, but even on those terms it is still good value for money.

If we consider the imbalance in conventional forces, what would happen if we were to attempt to bridge the gap? We would obtain for the additional money three divisions of tanks — that is all. Would that be a sufficient replacement for the nuclear deterrent of the United Kingdom? In addition, there has been criticism that the number of warheads will be increased. But that in itself increases the possibility of what we can do with the weapon. It will hit 14 times more targets than our present nuclear deterrent—Polaris.

Mr. Couchman

Is it not a fact that, although Trident will represent a considerable escalation on our present capability with the Chevaline-based Polaris, we will only be restoring the capability to hit targets that we first had with the V-bomber force and the original bombs? Is it not a fact that there was a reduction when we adopted Polaris and a dramatic reduction in our capability to hit targets when we went to Chevaline?

Mr. Hind

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. It is clear that we are restoring the capacity that we had in the 1960s.

The abandonment of Trident would cause a large deficit. The Labour party wishes to negotiate the American nuclear bases out of Britain. Does it not know that that would result in the loss of more than just those nuclear bases? I believe, from comments heard in Washington, that it would result in the withdrawal of 300,000 American troops from Europe, and would put a great deal of pressure upon NATO.

The Labour party's arguments are intellectually dishonest. It condemns nuclear arms and wishes to withdraw them unilaterally from the United Kingdom, but also wishes to remain in NATO under the umbrella of the American nuclear capacity. Labour Members wish to remain in the club, but do not want to pay the membership fee. The Americans will not stand for that. They will say, "This is an alliance and everyone standing within it pays their way. You cannot be a member unless you are prepared to take the good with the bad."

We hear talk about the SDP-Liberal alliance forming a Government. Alliance Members constantly push it down our throats. Today, we have seen a classic example from the leader of the SDP of the differences between his party and the Liberal party. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) is a member of the council of CND and advocates disarmament. A recent Gallup poll showed that 84 per cent. of Liberal candidates would abandon the Polaris nuclear deterrent. This contrasts with the 51 per cent. of SDP candidates who wish to keep it. The leader of the SDP says that he would replace Polaris with an additional nuclear deterrent, while the leader of the Liberal party says, "No, we shall not replace anything." How could they form a credible Government if the public were not sure of their policies?

The Labour party suffers from the same problem. It is clear from the outpourings of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—the Labour party's foreign affairs spokesman — that his views differ in many respects from those of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) and no doubt those of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is waiting to put his case.

Trident is so far advanced that it would be foolish to call it off. It has consequences for defence spending far beyond that which we can conceive at present. We should press ahead with a weapon that will be a deterrent and prevent attack from the Soviet Union.

We should negotiate nuclear disarmament from a position of strength, and Trident would provide us with that strength. The most recent offer from Mr. Gorbachev has come about because we have been negotiating from strength. We should consider his offer carefully because it provides a good basis from which to negotiate sensibly a verifiable mutual nuclear disarmament — not the unilateralism that has been urged upon us, with the hope that neutralism will follow. Britain's history defies neutrality in any respect. It is foolish. We cannot become Switzerland overnight, as many Labour Members seem to believe.

The Tornado programme is very important to those hon. Members who represent constituencies in the northwest. British Aerospace builds the airframe. We are pleased to see that the Tornado has been recognised in military circles as one of the finest weapons, and as our main line air defence weapon. The announcement of the European fighter aircraft— a five-nation partnership—will be welcomed in the north-west as a sensible development to replace aging aircraft. In the 1990s, we hope to see the result of the Government's foresight in participating in that programme.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State talks about making savings in defence purchasing in relation to the royal ordnance factories. We should not make savings by buying inferior equipment. Many of my constituents who work in the royal ordnance factory at Chorley believe that some foreign ammunition is inferior. It might be cheaper, but if it is inferior it is a bad purchase. Saving money on defence spending is fine, provided that it does not increase the DHSS bill through the payment of extra welfare benefits. The Government should examine royal ordnance purchasing policy. The provision of ammunition causes grave concern in Lancashire because many jobs are invested in it.

Before the Government start to order type 23 frigates, they should consider whether the most effective naval surface weapon will be a long, thin frigate or a short, fat one. That has not yet been resolved. It would be foolish to go ahead and subsequently, after research and investigation, discover that the alternative would have been better.

We are on the right lines in relation to our policy on Trident. Even if it is never used, it plays an important part in negotiations on nuclear disarmament, and will have been worth every penny spent on it to make the world a safer place.

8.26 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I wish to voice in the House the point of view of many millions of people, of whom I am one, who believe that Britain's burden of defence expenditure is, in real terms, much too great and contributes to our failure to solve other difficulties, including our economic weakness; and also believe that the nature of our relationship with the United States, through NATO and directly, unfortunately limits Britain's capacity to ease the world tensions most likely to lead to war, and makes it hard for us to provide the urgently needed support for the Third world.

I wish to put the argument for a major diversion of resources from the means of death to the means of life, and for an independent or non-aligned foreign policy which would allow Britain to play a more constructive role in bridging the East-West gap, and in closing the gulf that separates North and South.

That view is widely shared. I have taken part in many defence debates for 30 years. I made my maiden speech from the Front Bench in 1957 as Opposition spokesman on defence. The arguments advanced by the Government today and some hon. Members do not reflect in any real way the changes that have taken place in the world and in public opinion in Britain. That is why there is a wider gulf now between the view of the current Government and that of the Opposition—the next Government—than I can recall since I have been a Member of Parliament.

The Government and the SDP are having marginal, managerial arguments about what is the best weapon to fire from the Trident submarine. The Opposition view on defence, as put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), of closing all United States nuclear bases, cancelling Trident, decommissioning Polaris—we all know that there have been discussions with the Soviet Union on that—and of a wholly nonnuclear defence policy, represents a clear alternative to the views put forward by the Minister. I shall be very proud to advocate it during the next general election campaign. It is the product of many years of discussion. I was on the national executive committee of the Labour party when Hugh Gaitskell said that he would fight and fight and fight again against such a policy. There is great support for it within the country, as I hope to show.

I should now like to put into Hansard, if I may put it like that, some of the factors that are changing public perception about what is happening. The first is in respect of the Soviet threat. I do not believe—and I think that millions of other people do not believe—that the reason we have had peace in Europe since the war is because the West first had a monopoly of the bomb and since then has had superiority in nuclear weapons.

Many people of my generation, remembering the war years, believe that one of the major reasons why the Soviet Union never intends to invade western Europe is because it lost 20 million people in the last war. They also remember that, far from Russia ever invading Britain, Britain sent an army into Russia to crush the revolution. There is no evidence — and there never has been, other than its armed strength — to suggest that Russia ever intended to move into western Europe, nor is there any evidence that it would succeed.

Does any hon. Member believe that the Russian army could go through eastern Europe, where it might meet some resistance, and then occupy West Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Denmark and then come to Britain, after which it would go on to Northern Ireland, there to deal with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley)? Does anybody honestly believe that that has ever been Russia's intention? Does anybody believe that the only reason for Gorbachev not addressing the Supreme Soviet in Westminster tonight is because the Government have an order form for Trident? Nobody believes that any more. The reason for people believing Gorbachev now—and they do —is because his argument is consistent with the true interests of the Soviet Union: to develop its economy after years of bureaucracy under a centralised system. Any hon. Member who speaks in the House tonight—we have already had a bit of it from both sides—as though we were still living during the time when Stalin was still in command is misreading the situation.

Secondly, there has been a reassessment of the position of the United States. I greatly admire the American people, who have strongly resisted Reagan's policy in central America. I do not wish to identify American opinion with Reagan, any more than I wish to be identified with the present Government in Britain. Many people realise that we are now living in the age of the America empire. We had an empire for a long time and then we lost it. When I was born I think that we governed a sixth of the world. The Americans have 3,000 bases around the world. They have imperial interests around the world. Anybody who seriously believes that the United States stands for democracy and peace is living in a fool's paradise.

The Americans toppled. Allende in Chile and they backed Franco. They also backed the Turkish dictator and the Greek generals. They supported Marcos until he became impossible and they went along with Papa Doc. They also invaded Grenada and they may invade Nicaragua. The House should not think that the British people any longer believe, if they ever did, that the United States is more than an empire in decline, and an empire in decline is more dangerous than an empire that is nascent and growing in strength.

We have American bases in Britain. Nobody honestly believes that we have a veto, because the American President takes an oath of allegiance as President and as commander-in-chief of the American armed forces which prohibits him from sharing his discretion with any Government, however friendly. The bombing of Libya undoubtedly had an effect, because non-nuclear weapons and non-nuclear bases were used. The Americans may be impatient with us. It may be true that one only has to say that we want the Americans to go and they will pull out of the whole of Europe, but I doubt whether that is the case. We are entitled to self-government. The old saying was "no taxation without representation." There should also be "No annihilation without representation." We as a nation are not defending ourselves properly if we put our future under the control of a foreign president whom we did not elect and whom we cannot remove.

The third matter that has changed public opinion is the growing doubt about nuclear weapons. Chernobyl played a significant part in that. If the Russians never dropped a single bomb on western Europe but we dropped a single bomb on Russia, it would destroy us. People have failed to take on board the real message of Chernobyl, that through an accident in a nuclear power station the use of nuclear weapons becomes impossible. But that opinion is changing. Also we know, although I learned it only after having been the Minister with responsibility for nuclear power for eight years, because the Civil Service did not convey it either to the Cabinet or to me, that plutonium from our civil power stations goes into American weapons. Many people are now connecting nuclear power with nuclear weapons.

The fourth point, which is very obvious, is that people are beginning to realise that there is a crushing burden of defence expenditure. I do not intend to go into the billions because billions do not register with the public, in their household budgets. Last year, every man, woman and child in Britain had £6.16 a week taken off them for defence. That is three times as much as is spent on the fire, ambulance and police services. We spend three times as much on keeping the Russians out as we do on protecting ourselves.

Mr. Lee

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn

May I finish this point first? The amount of defence expenditure, compared with Japan, is one of the explanations why the Japanese are doing so well. We spend 5 or 6 per cent. of our national income on defence, whereas the Japanese spend only 1 per cent. on defence. Is it any wonder that Japanese cars, videos and cameras are to be found all over the world? Last week we held a big arms sales exhibition at which we boasted about the number of weapons that we sell. We are crushing ourselves with the arms burden. The skill that ought to be available to help the disabled and the Third world to deal with the problems that lead to discontent at home and abroad is being wasted upon weapons of war. The burden is enormous.

I asked for the national figures to be divided by the number of constituencies. Chesterfield is having to pay £16 million for Trident. That is Chesterfield's share of Trident. Derbyshire county council's rates each year amount to only £36 million. I know that one figure is spread over a period while the other is for only a year. The Falklands war cost Chesterfield £6 million. Perhaps that is appropriate, since Coalite is in Chesterfield. However, the borough council spends only £7 million. If one relates the defence burden to the budget of the ordinary family, it is a crushing burden.

Mr. Lee


Mr. Benn

People feel that as well. If the Minister wants to intervene, although I would rather he did not do so, because I do not want to take too long, I shall give way.

Mr. Lee

Does the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that defence expenditure in this country sustains around 1.2 million jobs?

Mr. Benn

It sustains far fewer jobs than if the same amount of money went into civil production. We may be able to produce a nuclear missile with a microchip but we cannot give 24-hour-a-day care to old people with a microchip. We have learned that we may get more bangs per buck with Trident but we get more jobs per pound if we spend the money on civil needs.

My fifth point—this is perhaps where Bob Geldof has done us a good turn—is the link that people make between the arms race and world poverty. It is obscene that people should be dying by their millions for lack of a dirt road, a tractor, a pipe and a pump when the United States—and we are a part of it now—is to spend a billion dollars on another sophisticated weapons system. It is obscene and it is wrong, if I may use a word that has fallen out of favour. The world debt crisis, much of which has been accumulated because dictators have bought weapons with which to crush their own people, not to fight the Russians, could be a factor in that.

My sixth point is the effect of militarisation on our domestic democracy — the effect on civil liberties of having 30,000 American troops here and police trying to arrest and chase the Greenham common women. We were told that the hippy convoy consisted of people who were like "armed brigands". I am more frightened of the cruise missile convoys going around the country and their capacity to destroy than I am of a few people who are in favour of trying to work for peace, whatever strange festivals they may attend. I am also more frightened of the destruction of Cabinet responsibility and parliamentary accountability because of failure to tell the truth, and of the fact that we have a standing army in Britain, which, since 1688, this Parliament has always rejected.

These factors are well reflected in public opinion. For some reason the Gallup poll figures are sent to me free every month and I have just received the latest ones. The figures I shall quote are figures that we will never see in the newspapers and when hon. Members hear them they will know immediately why that is. On page 36 there appear the questions: Some people say the United States is antagonising allies by her foreign policy. Do you agree? Yes: 70 per cent. How much confidence do you have in the ability of the United States to deal wisely with world problems? A little: 26 per cent.; very little: 31 per cent.; none at all: 18 per cent. Three quarters of the people asked that second question have little, very little or no confidence at all. One can contrast those figures with the speeches that are made. There are also some significant questions about comparing the British attitude to America with the British attitude to Russia. The figures are quite staggering. The question is asked: Do you approve or disapprove of the role of the United States in the world? Approve: 28 per cent.; disapprove: 57 per cent. The same question asked about Russia revealed that 22 per cent. approved and 52 per cent. disapproved. There is not much difference in those perceptions and that comes out in the final question I shall quote. It reads: Do you think the United States has done everything reasonable to reach agreement with the Soviet Union? Has done everything: 14 per cent.; should do more: 79 per cent. When the same question was asked about the Soviet Union the figures were almost identical. Some 14 per cent. thought the Soviet Union has done everything possible while 78 per cent. thought it should do more, a marginally lower percentage.

When we consider the weight of political and media opinion which never says a good word about the Soviet Union, it is interesting to see that such figures should come out of the deep memory of the war or some deep understanding of what is happening.

In considering the next step I should like to look first at the Labour policy. Labour policy will mark an important change and the Conservative party should not think that it is going td run away with the election on polling day because, as I have shown, there is a lot of support for the ideas that underpin our policy.

Next we must look for some alternative security systems in Europe because I am sure that the Poles, the Hungarians and the Czechs would like to have a little bit more elbow room just as we would vis a vis their alliance.

There must be a major diversion of resources from weapons to meet need. We must remove all American bases and not just the nuclear ones. We must disengage from NATO. It may be that if we were to try to remove the nuclear weapons to which we are committed we might get into the same problems as New Zealand where the Americans have applied heavy pressure through ANZUS.

We must realign our policy in order to direct it in the way in which people want it directed, to try to break down the barriers between east, west, north and south. I recognise that that is a long-term strategy, which will take time and need discussion, but it offers the best hope for mankind. It is in contrast to a Government who are going for reckless expenditure and subservience to an American Administration that has nothing to do with our interests. It threatens our security, increases the risk of war and costs millions of lives in the developing world for lack of the aid that we do not give because we criminally divert resources to weapons that we do not need.

We live in a time of great danger, when war could occur by accident. I do not believe that either of the major powers wants war, but war by accident is possible. A nuclear accident could happen in any country, and a Trident missile could explode in Britain just as Chernobyl exploded in Russia. We live in a time of the bankruptcy of countries brought about by the weapons they have to buy—especially countries in the Third world—and we live in a time when there could be some tragedy on a massive scale.

But we also live at a time when the technology is available to mankind to end every problem of poverty and disease if only we are prepared to devote our skill and our resources in that direction. I have enough confidence in Britain and British common sense to believe that public opinion is well ahead of the Government of the day in wishing that that initiative could somehow be taken.

8.45 pm
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Bonn) because he concentrates the mind wonderfully upon the proposition that a Labour Government should come to power and what it would do for our defence policy. I have no doubt that what the right hon. Gentleman has said would form a main theme of what such a Labour Government would give to the British people by way of a defence policy.

I used time in previous defence debates to talk about constituency matters, constituency defence or defence procurement matters. The level of debate has risen today and I suspect that that is because we are moving inexorably towards a general election and people have raised their eyes above their own mean constituency interests. I shall have to mention one such matter, but I shall leave it until much later.

The next 12 months will see a major change nationally and internationally about the defence of the West and of the East. Within the last few weeks we have taken'a step forward with the ordering of the first Trident submarine. That is a major step to having a successor to Polaris. Internationally, President Reagan has said that he no longer feels bound by the SALT 2 agreement. That is an unratified and much compromised agreement but he has shown his goodwill by scrapping two Poseidon submarines in order to commission a Trident vessel. President Reagan's coming away from SALT 2 will concentrate the minds of arms limitation negotiators at the various arms control conferences that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned in his speech.

In his foreword to the excellent booklet "British Defence Policy" my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said: it is the first duty of any British Government to safeguard its people in peace and freedom. He went on to restate the Government's high commitment and priority to defence. That was reinforced in his speech, and that is as it should be. However, I am not entirely convinced that Opposition Members are as convinced that the first duty of any Government is the defence of the realm. That is a duty which must not be compromised by reductions to fund some other programmes.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) delivered an excellent and robust speech. Obviously we disagree with him on the question of a nuclear deterrent but his was one of the most refreshing speeches I have heard from the Opposition in defence debates since I came to the House. If they were convinced, Opposition Members would cease to talk in terms such as those used by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) who, when we shared a platform recently, as I said in my intervention during the speech by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), said that the funding of his aspirations for the Health Service would in no small way be due to the cancellation of Trident. On that platform he conceded that there would be a need to strengthen somewhat our conventional forces in the event of that cancellation, but there was a clear implication that there would be a gap and money from the Trident saving would go to other non-defence programmes. That needs to be hammered home and to be said time and again.

That lack of commitment to defence, which played such a demonstrable part in the electoral eclipse of the Labour party in 1983, betrays the memory of some former Labour leaders. That lack of commitment will split the so-called alliance and reveal just how big a split exists between the parties of the alliance and what a sham is the present collusion between those two parties.

It is, of course, the Government's commitment to Trident, and specifically Trident D5, which distinguishes the Conservative Government from the three other parties which aspire to government. In considering the present posture of the Labour party to Trident and, indeed, nuclear weapons in general—and we have heard much about that in the debate—it is worth remembering the part Labour Governments have played in shaping Britain's nuclear deterrent since world war 2. Partly because of the unhappy early rivalry and also because of the McMahon Act, the post-war Government of Mr. Attlee and Mr. Bevin committed Britain to building its own atomic bomb. Mr. Attlee allowed the B24s of the United States to have bases in Britain. It is that first commitment to Europe and to NATO that survives today.

Mr. Bill Walker

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that the B29 was capable of striking Libya from United Kingdom bases?

Mr. Couchman

I bow to my hon. Friend's superior knowledge of the capabilities of the B29, which he probably remembers better than I do. There is certainly a distinct irony in the fact that a putative Labour Government would now deprive the United States of the bases which it has in the United Kingdom.

Of course, Attlee's steadfastness did not extend to telling the British public of the decision to build the British bomb. The funds voted were hidden in the euphemism "repairs to public buildings." That secrecy, by ambivalent Labour Administrations, has surfaced from time to time.

We were reminded that in 1964 the first Wilson Government made much of wanting to renegotiate the Nassau agreement of my noble Friend the Earl of Stockton and the splendid deal that he obtained for Polaris, but they wanted to do so only to strengthen the impression of an effective collaboration. What Lord Wilson did not appear to want was to cancel Polaris. He justified the decision to continue on the improbable premise that too much money had been committed already. Actually, only about £40 million had been spent on the beginnings of the hulls of two Polaris submarines.

However, what the Wilson Government did at that time was to compromise the programme by the decision of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) to cancel the fifth SSBN and so jeopardise the credibility of our Polaris fleet.

In 1974, as we were reminded by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), the Wilson Government took on the decision of the Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) to allow the Chevaline upgrade to Polaris to proceed. But, again, everything had to be secret. We were told this evening that that had been taken to Cabinet. I understand that there is some discussion whether all Cabinet members were aware of the Chevaline upgrade in 1974. By 1977 the cost of Chevaline had reached £800 million, as we were reminded by the right hon. Gentleman, and cancellation was considered. However, by that time Britain's deterrent was much too important to our relationship within NATO and our relationship with the United States.

Before the end of his premiership, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) had the courage and foresight to recognise, on advice, that the Polaris fleet was aging, that even the Chevaline upgrade would not last for ever, and that it would be necessary to consider a possible successor. Studies were commissioned to examine the need and feasibility to replace Polaris with a new independent deterrent. Again, the studies were carried out in a deeply secretive way with Ministers able to disavow their part.

By November 1978 those studies were ready for the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, the then Prime Minister, together with the right hon. Members for Devonport and for Leeds, East and Lord Mulley to consider.

The outcome of the studies was that the replacement of Polaris by Trident C4 should be explored. The right hon. Gentlemen explored that possibility with President Carter, and the signs were favourable. But by then the Labour Government were at war with their trade union paymasters and were in their death throes. Two months later its Liberal collaborators pulled the plug and Labour's influence on Britain's nuclear policy was reduced to that of a dispirited Opposition. Up to that time, in their Own secretive and somewhat ambivalent way, Labour Prime Ministers had acted in favour of the continuance of an independent British deterrent. They had maintained a bipartisan policy.

The year 1980 saw that bipartisanship shattered when the fact and cost of Chevaline was revealed to the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym). Labour outrage and the accession of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) as Leader of the Opposition led inexorably to Labour's unilateralism and its political catastrophe in 1983.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli never comes to the Dispatch Box but that he blames all the nation's ills on the Government's decision to buy Trident C4 and subsequently to replace that with a decision to buy D5. Labour, in thrall to its Left wing, aspires to cancel Trident, to recall the SSBNs and to decommission the Polaris missiles as soon as it takes power — perhaps I should say, if it takes power. Labour aspires to throw out American nuclear forces from their bases. We have heard that repeated time and again this evening. Labour also aspires to throw out the cruise missiles which are dedicated to NATO and are under the joint control of ourselves and the Americans.

Those Labour aspirations will lead to the "Finlandisation" of the United Kingdom and the break up of NATO, because it would be the biggest wedge to have been driven into the belly of NATO. That will drive the Americans back across the Atlantic, which, to judge from their present naked and constant anti-Americanism, will delight most members of the Labour party. The abrogation of our nuclear policy and the consequences that I foresee will leave Britain peculiarly vulnerable to any threat from a potential adversary who has nuclear weapons.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli has said that Labour will strengthen our conventional forces. I must advise him to talk to his right hon. Friends about their various spending ambitions. There will be no money left from the cancellation of Trident to do anything about strengthening our conventional forces. In any case, it really would not matter what increase in conventional defence Labour commissioned because, in the face of an aggressor with a nuclear capability, we would be helpless to resist. That, of course, is why Soviet offers to reduce by a small proportion its missile stock in return for the elimination of the British and French deterrents are completely cynical and are to be resisted. Labour's appeasement will be its Achilles heel, and when we reach the next general election it will have just as much success as it had in 1983.

Let me deal briefly with the defence policies-of the so-called alliance. In this most vital of all Government responsibilities, the conspiracy of power hungry but disparate parties resembles a pantomime horse—lnot the friendly creature with one participant leading and the other with his head stuck into his leader's nether regions, but a two-headed pantomime horse with the two heads facing in opposite directions. We have heard much about their various and disparate policies this evening.

When one compares the Liberal party's defence policy with that of the Labour party, there really is not a fag paper to put between them. However, the Liberal party's SDP partner, if one accepts that the right hon. Member for Devonport speaks with the authority that that office should have, appears to believe that Britain should retain an independent deterrent beyond Polaris, but that that should not be Trident. The SDP would support the retention of cruise, but the unilateralist Liberals are opposed to the retention of those weapons.

We have all been somewhat amused over recent weeks by what I was going to refer to as the vituperative pillow talk of the leaders of those two parties. As lovers, the Social Democrat and Liberal parties make a most unprepossessing match.

I have spoken at some length about the policies and postures of the Opposition parties, particularly with regard to our independent deterrent. Only the Conservative Government offer the nation properlyresourced balanced nuclear and conventional forces to defend Britain's integrity. The key to that balance, certainly on the nuclear side, is, without any doubt, the powerful and convincing Trident D5 weapon. It will be a long time before any system that might be deployed could possibly render Trident an ineffective deterrent. Only this Government, with their policy, will retain a commitment to that deterrent and all that that symbolises.

8.58 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I shall not take up the remarks made by the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman). He gave us a uniquely unoriginal and unenlightening tour through history, which ended up with some remarks whose inacccuracy was only exceeded by the boring nature of what went before.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way, but there is a limited time—

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman has not even been in the Chamber for most of the debate and then comments on—

Mr. Ashdown

The hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong. I have been in the Chamber for all but about 40 minutes of the debate. I apologise for having been absent then, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we all have other calls on the time.

I wish briefly to mention three items. The first is a constituency item, and let me say that I am glad that it is so, since not long ago it was a national item. It was then a matter of frustration to me that I could never get "Westland" into the problem of the so-called Westland crisis. The Minister will know that more than a year ago, and about eight months before the crisis broke, I warned the Government of the impending Westland crisis, as did many . hon. Members on both sides of the House. Unhappily, those warnings were ignored. As a result, terrible damage was done to a major defence contractor and to a major part of our defence industry. Moreover, terrible damage was done to the Government. The Westland crisis nearly swamped them. Westland came through that period, and it was great testimony to its quality and strength and to the quality and strength-of its work force and management that it did so. We owe a great debt to the company and, in particular, to Sir John Cuckney for having taken us through that turbulent period. Such pressures would have broken lesser companies but uniquely in the case of Westland it bonded together the management and the work force.

I know that there is much discussion and recognition of these issues behind the scenes. So I say quietly, but nevertheless insistently, that there is another crisis in the making unless the Government can soon clear up some of the uncertainties about the future of helicopter procurement. Westland is going through a crucial restructuring period, and the uncertainties that lie ahead make it almost impossible for it to plan effectively.

I issue that warning, and I hope that on this Occasion, the Government will listen. Apparently 15 Sea King orders are in the pipeline somewhere, but they have not yet been delivered and we do not know when they will come. Let us hope that it will be soon. It is vital also to clarify the policy on light and medium support helicopters for the Army. That has not been done and the inference to be drawn from the most recent questions on defence is that that may not happen until the end of the year. That is too late by several months if one is to allow proper planning ahead within Westland. We also need to know when the commitment to EH 101 production will be made. It must be made soon. If it is not made in the next month or two, it must be made as soon as possible.

Westland is trying to restructure and is going through a difficult period. Frankly, its task will become impossible if the company has to deal with all the variables attendant on the Government's uncertainty. I implore the Government to pay heed to this warning. There is, I say again, a crisis in the making unless some of those uncertainties are cleared up.

Let me outline the problem in starker terms. Apart from aircraft in the pipeline, those 15 Sea Kings referred to earlier will provide 750,000 man hours of work —when the order is confirmed. Add this to the man hours provided by Sikorski, over a period of five years some 2 million man hours in all, and a total of 2.75 million man hours is needed. Westland produces 2.8 million man hours in a single year. That is the measure of the problem ahead.

We do not ask, as we did not ask before, for charity. We merely ask for some clarity and certainty against which we can plan the future of that great company. In the light of what has happened in the past, it is incumbent on the Government to do everything possible to make sure that that is provided for the company.

It is a matter of some encouragement to us that during the RAF debate the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement said: we shall be doing all that we can to ensure that Westland's position and capabilities continue to be recognised fully in the international market place."—[Official Report, 26 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 1035.] Those are encouraging words from which many of us take comfort. We know the Minister to be a man of his word, and to be working behind the scenes to ensure that that happens. But the time has now arrived for that statement to be turned into action. I implore the Government to ensure that that happens soon.

My second point springs out of the first. Helicopter policy in general is a mess, and the Secretary of State should recognise that. The tactical concept of splitting helicopter control on the battlefield between the Army and the RAF makes no sense in battlefield, tactical, defence or procurement terms. I hope that the Secretary of State will note that I am receiving nods of assent from Conservative Members.

That policy is wasteful, inefficient, costly and potentially militarily dangerous. I hope that the Secretary of State will bend his mind and that of the Ministry of Defence towards a full review of tactical helicopters policy in terms of control on the battlefield and of procurement. I hope that he will take into account the fact that we are behind most other armies in this respect. According to calculations made by the United States, we are 100 helicopters short of what we need in the central plain of Europe. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take account of the advances in the United States and the USSR in helicopter policy. I hope that he will recognise the importance of helicopters as a force multiplier, especially in an army which is smaller than we would like it to be.

I turn to the central issue—the Defence Estimates. I believe that at its best the White Paper is, and I use the words of the Select Committee, a defence review by stealth without Parliament having the proper capacity to be able to examine it. At worst it is nothing less than a fudge. The word "fudge" has been used a great deal. It has been used in connection with the Liberal/SDP alliance defence commission on which I sat. The real fudge, however, lies in this White Paper. The Government know that what they claimed that they would deliver with Trident makes it impossible to deliver what they say that they want to deliver in terms of conventional weapons. Contrary to the Secretary of State's claim, the evidence is that no longterm planning has been done. His predecessor told us last year that there were no plans or discussions on the defence cuts which he has now announced.

One must believe either that that statement by his predecessor was a deceit — which I reject — or that Ministers had no idea of what was happening. I am unclear about which is worse for the nation and its future defence planning.

The figures are clear and their conclusions are irresistible. When we talk about a cut of 4 or 5 per cent. in the overall defence budget over the next four or five years, we mean a cut in the equipment budget of from £800 million to £700 million, or 11 per cent., over the same period. Trident expenditure in this period will rise from £150 million in 1984–85 to £850 million in 1988–89. That means an increase in expenditure of 470 per cent. for Trident. Allowing for other fixed costs, that means that the repair and maintenance budget will have to drop by 11 per cent. and the non-Trident equipment budget by 24 per cent. to accommodate it. The effect on new conventional equipment will be devastating.

If my figures are incorrect, I hope that the Secretary of State will at least give us the benefit of the true figures because he has provided none of his own. I have quoted the best figures available on which to make these judgments. It is essential that the Secretary of State and the MoD come clean. It is impossible for our defence industries to plan unless they know what is ahead. It is impossible for the House to plan and debate such vital issues unless we are clear about the choices open to us. The Defence Estimates paper over increasingly widening gaps and caverns.

I have only a few minutes in which to deal with the criticisms levelled at my party by the Secretary of State and others. It is strange that the Government should accuse us of splits. The Government have been split down the middle of their economic policy. Their Cabinet was nearly blown apart by splits on the Westland crisis. It was split over Libya, over Leyland, over South Africa, and even on defence matters. There was a split over the key SDI issue. The Foreign Secretary said something entirely different from that which the Prime Minister now insists is the Government's policy. In the last six or seven months the Government have been split on national issue after national issue.

Nor can we absolve the Labour party. The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said that the Labour Government would wish to cancel or decommission Polaris, as has been said before. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), on the other hand, has said that that is a matter yet to be resolved and which must be considered before the next election. I refer to his interview in Marxism Today of April 1986. The right hon. Member for Llanelli said that the Labour party would throw out United States nuclear bases as soon as it is elected. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East said: we haven't yet addressed ourselves too adequately to these problems. We are beginning to do that". He said that there was a problem over United States bases but that, no doubt, the Labour party would have a policy before the next election.

I say to Labour Members that their policy of throwing out the American bases is the great weakness in their argument. It points to a series of major inconsistencies in their position. It makes it impossible for them to claim to support NATO when they say that they will not play their part in ensuring that the deterrent under which they rest and are protected is properly serviced, if necessary, from the shores of this island. It is a position that is morally inconsistent and, frankly, downright cowardly. If we are to benefit from the deterrent, we must be prepared to face the necessity to provide the procedures, bases and facilities that are required.

The alliance defence commission, on which I had the pleasure to sit, produced a policy that was significant in the sense that it was coherent from one end to the other. What was said at one point did not cause what was said at another to be nonsensical. It faced some of the major issues that are approaching us. Its unique achievement was to take debate out of the ideological bunkers into which it has been put by the Conservative and Labour parties. It brought the issues into the open and we were able to discuss them realistically. It does no good to democracy or politics to treat defence with the closed mind of the religious fanatic. Defence is something that must be brought out into the open so that we can take full account of the real options that are ahead of us.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). I do not agree with him on every issue and there are differences of emphasis between us, but it is better for the public and for defence generally that the differences of emphasis are publicly and openly debated, minor though they are. It would be an achievement if the Government were now to produce a defence expenditure White Paper which showed the options rather than hiding them and did not opt for the fudge that has been inflicted upon us in the Defence Estimates. The Government know that what they propose in their obsession with Trident makes no sense of what they claim to be their policies for conventional weapons. The result will be a reduction in the efficiency of NATO and a weakening of the defence of this nation.

9.12 pm
Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

First, I take the opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) on his ministerial appointment to the Ministry of Defence. I wish him well in his first defence debate as a Minister and in his reply this evening.

The Defence White Paper is becoming glossier, as some hon. Members have observed, longer and no doubt more expensive. There are some interesting changes in its format, if not in its basic priorities. More attention is being paid to Labour party priorities, such as arms control, disarmament, conventional defence improvements, defence co-operation and equipment collaboration. When this year's White Paper is compared with those for 1982 and 1981, for example, we realise how much headway has been made with some of the priorities that the Labour party has established and promoted in recent years. For example, in 1984 arms control was given two pages in the White Paper. It was given just under three pages in last year's White Paper. It has been given six pages this year and an entire chapter to itself, with related passages elsewhere.

As I listened to the Secretary of State this afternoon — he spent the last 15 minutes of his speech talking about arms control—I found myself wondering whether a Conservative Secretary of State for Defence could have spoken at such length and with such apparent sincerity, and perhaps growing conviction, on arms control three or four years ago.

East-West relations are of supreme concern to us all. NATO is concerned with defence and political issues.

Eighteen months ago, the superpowers were not talking to each other, and there was no thought of an East-West summit or even the renewal of contacts. There have been considerable contacts over the past year. Both sides put forward constructive proposals in Geneva. That was an important start to better relations.

Mr. Gorbachev's proposals reflect a different syle of Soviet leadership than heretofore, and present the West with questions and difficulties. They also present the West with opportunities for agreement, which we cannot neglect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) reminded the House, the recent renewal of contacts has had an enormous impact on the public perception of the Western position. All the more welcome in chapter 1 is the acknowledgement that Soviet leaders have ceased to regard war with the West as inevitable.

It is on that recognition that we must seek constantly to build. An essential step is to ascertain an accurate picture of military balance between NATO and the Warsaw pact. It will not be easy, however confidently it is approached in annexe A of the defence statement. Comparing quantitative factors, such as manpower and equipment, is relatively straightforward, but even that exercise can be unexpectedly difficult—a fact which may explain why no new NATO-Warsaw pact force comparisons have been published by NATO since 1984.

In addition to static indicators, a number of dynamic measures bear significantly on the relative effectiveness of the forces. A much neglected but increasingly important variable is electronic warfare capabilities. Some say that the whole character of modern warfare is being changed by electronic warfare capabilities, with astonishing speed. Yet there is no mention of that in the defence statement.

Labour Members welcome the assurance in paragraph 315 that the past 12 months have seen further significant steps towards conventional defence improvements within the Alliance. One of the effects of the public debate over the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy has been the emergence of broad-based support for the conventionalisation of NATO strategy. As doubts about the moral legitimacy and military utility of the threat of first use of nuclear weapons have grown—from which side of the House has that argument come consistently in recent years?—so has the interest in reducing NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons through improving non-nuclear forces. Yet how much and in what way NATO's conventional forces could and should be strengthened remains an open question.

We welcome the attention that conventional weapons improvement received in this year's defence statement, but by next year we shall be looking for some guidance as to how much and in what form. The search for financially feasible and politically sustainable options for enhancing conventional deterrence constitutes perhaps the most critical Alliance challenge of 1986. Not so welcome is the section on chemical weapons at paragraph 323, which is truly frightening—and not just because of the nastiness of the beast. Does the House really accept the presumption that one must be able to retaliate in kind?

In view of European sensitivity on arms issues, and because of the distaste in which nerve gases are held, I regret the proposed United States modernisation of its chemical weapons stockpile. In the light of our experience of, first, the modernisation of intermediate nuclear forces and, secondly, SDI, and the divisiveness they both threatened, surely it was vital that both the political and presentational aspects of chemical weapons modernisation should have received more careful attention and should have been set in the context of arms control. Instead, they have scarcely received any emphasis.

The most significant passage in the White Paper is in paragraph 503: Although the budget for 1986–87 and the two subsequent years … is planned to rise in cash terms, its value in real terms will decrease by about 6 per cent. over the three-year period … Some difficult decisions will have to be taken but there will be no need for any change in our main defence posture. Clearly, the defence statement's message is that the seven fat years are over. Although the Secretary of State For Defence insists that he sees no need for a full-scale defence review, he must be well aware that he is taking a calculated political risk. He clearly believes that a programme involving selective cuts and delays in programmes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) argued, can square the circle without serious effects on the forces' fighting capability and morale or on Britain's contribution to NATO. But on the central issue of how the Government intend to match the increasing demands on the defence budget with diminishing resources he is silent. His suggested cuts were small beside those difficult decisions which every hon. Member must know are now exercising his mind.

The reaction of the Government's supporters to the Defence Estimates, for example, is one of alarm. On 13 May, the Daily Mail, looking at the figures, concluded that they would not work and wanted the cancellation of Trident. The Times on the same day was similarly alarmed and wanted the Rhine Army to be brought home. The Daily Telegraph[Interruption.] These are the newspapers that normally, conventionally and historically have supported the Conservative party. The Daily Telegraph wants the Ministry of Defence budget slashed. Apparently, none believes that British defence spending, even in its newly trimmed state, can carry on indefinitely as the highest percentage in Western Europe.

The situation, argued Lord Carver in the other place last week, is aggravated by the Government's stubborn refusal to deviate from their belief in the need for an independent British strategic strike force, an expensive luxury that merely adds to the superfluity of nuclear weapons — and is irrelevant to the real needs of NATO which is our first line of defence. For several years now there has been near unanimity among those qualified to judge these matters that NATO's primary need is not to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons, but to improve its conventional capability." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 25 June 1986; Vol. 477, c. 324.] The right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) referred to the same debate and mentioned Lord Glenarthur, who wound up the debate for the Government. Would the right hon. Gentleman, in his distinguished role as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence whose work is valued by every hon. Member, seriously set the judgment of Lord Glenarthur— I say this with the greatest respect to the noble Lord—against the professional judgment of Lord Carver? Yet the right hon. Member for Spelthorne said that he could not follow the logic of the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli against the need for an independent strategic deterrent.

Sir Humphrey Atkins

I quoted the words of Lord Glenarthur who was speaking on behalf of the Government. I am bound to tell the hon. Gentleman that a Minister speaking on behalf of the Government carries more weight with me than even Lord Carver.

Mr. Duffy

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman said that in the presence of his hon. Friends. If he really believed that, his Committee would not undertake the rigorous work of cross-examination of professional witnesses which is a feature of its sittings.

After examining the latest budget forecasts, the Select Committee on Defence believes that official talk of defence spending having reached a more or less stable plateau is no longer valid. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) made the same point. While the Ministry of Defence has attempted to cloud the full scale of cash cuts, the Select Committee says that they could reach 7 per cent. in real terms by 1988–89 and threaten the operational capability of Britain's armed forces. The defence statement hints at where the axe might fall most heavily in its reference to the warship building programme and it is on that that I especially want to address the Secretary of State. Last year's document confidently claimed not only the first order of the new class of type 23 frigate, but spoke of future orders, naming at least one company expected to benefit. There are no such references this year and there is no new order announced today.

There is a similar absence of information on many Army and Air Force programmes. However, the right hon. Gentleman will soon have to bite the bullet and make choices. Big new programmes, in addition to Trident, a new fighter for the RAF, new tanks and artillery for the Army, new helicopters for the Navy and the ground forces are all clamouring for slices of a cake that will soon start to shrink.

The blows must fall somewhere on the conventional forces. Again, the speculation is that the main squeeze will fall on the Navy. In 1985–86 the Navy brought into service one nuclear-driven submarine, a carrier, two destroyers, a frigate and eight minesweepers. This year it can expect one submarine, one frigate and three minesweepers. The Navy is already on the slippery slope. Order books have never been so thin — four submarines last year and no new surface vessels except three minesweepers.

Thanks to the Falklands war, the Navy escaped the swingeing cuts intended under the 1981 review. The Secretary of State is now contemplating the position adopted by Sir John Nott, his predecessor but one, whose determination to cut the Royal Navy was quelled only by that war.

Slippage can be seen in the rate of ordering not only of frigates but of diesel-operated submarines, mine-counter measures and the replacement of the assault ships Fearless and Intrepid, about which the hon. Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall) was so rightly concerned.

In the light of their Falklands experience, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) must know that the Royal Marines, the old corps of the hon. Member for Beverley, are also concerned about the lack of an area defence weapon, the need for an additional artillery battery, more engineering support and possibly some armoured reconnaisance vehicles. However, while the Navy confronts an uncertain future on the size and effectiveness of its surface fleet, it is already having to struggle to meet its present commitments. For example, the number of frigates in the United Kingdom area held in readiness to meet unexpected contingencies has been reduced from two to one. Time devoted to evaluating equipment, local exercises and routine maintenance have all been trimmed. The British contribution of destroyers and frigates to NATO exercises over the past 10 years has declined by nearly one third. The amount of time that a frigate spends at sea has risen. The Navy's ships are now spending 50 per cent. of their time at sea, 10 per cent. more than in the war years and three times the 1930s level.

There is concern that in the long run present levels of activity may lead to a decline in the fighting efficiency of ships and their crews. In recognition of that and recruiting levels for officers in recent years that are too low, the manpower cuts ordered in the 1981 defence review are now being revised. Increased time at sea with frequent separation from wives and families must be affecting older married officers particularly and goes some way to explaining why far fewer now join the service with the idea of making it a career.

The growing problem of recruitment and retention of officers in the three services is, despite the manner in which the Secretary of State glossed over it this afternoon, the subject of a current detailed study by the service chiefs. Most of Britain's armed forces and 95 per cent. of their budgets are now committed to the Alliance. The survival of western Europe in wartime would depend upon American reinforcements getting through. In wartime the United Kingdom would provide vital port reception facilities. That role inevitably impinges upon the shape of the fleet. For example, it means the Navy simply has to have a balanced fleet. It needs carriers to provide antisubmarine warfare protection for the Atlantic strike fleet, Sea Harriers to protect against enemy attack and support amphibious landings.

The Atlantic link is of crucial strategic importance to the defence of western Europe. Since so few people travel by sea any longer, the public often fail to realise the extent to which Europe is dependent on routes across that vast ocean.

The sea bed provides oil and gas resources which account for more than 25 per cent. of western Europe's energy consumption. The north and central Atlantic also provide one quarter of the world's fishing catch. Despite the decline of the merchant and fishing fleets of the NATO nations, the quantity of seaborne trade has tripled in the past 20 years, although an increasing proportion of the trade involving NATO nations is carried in hulls under the flags of other countries. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) pointed out, that deplorable and alarming trend is reflected in the decline in the numbers of personnel and ships of the United Kingdom merchant fleet, as may be seen in tables 1.3 and 1.4 in volume 2 of the Estimates.

The four pillars of defence policy are the strategic nuclear force, the defence of Britain's land airspace, BAOR and the Navy. The defence statement takes the first two roles almost for granted—that is, the strategic force and the defence of Britain's land airspace. However, should they necessarily be taken for granted?

We have criticised the pre-eminence accorded by the Government to the strategic nuclear deterrent. I should like answers to .questions about the prior commitments that we have entered into in recent years about the manner of the defence of Britain's land airspace. In the previous two debates on the Royal Air Force, I have expressed acute anxiety about NATO's need to counter Warsaw pact air superiority in the central region. In view of the increasingly hostile air environment, Tornado will clearly experience a growing difficulty getting over the target and must therefore have the capability to engage it from some distance. Paragraph 4 of the 1983 defence statement claimed that studies were in hand to assess the conventional armed long-range stand-off missile or complementary systems to manned aircraft. There has been no mention of the studies since then, although I understand that a memorandum of understanding exists between the United States and ourselves on long-range stand-off missiles.

In the light of that development, how far has the Ministry of Defence gone in a comparative assessment of the performance and cost-effectiveness of manned combat fixed-wing aircraft operating from fixed airfields, and missiles or pilotless flying vehicles, whether the task is strike, reconnaissance or air defence?

In the defence statement BAOR is described as a powerful symbol of our commitment to the security of Europe. However, The Times, again of 13 May, finds it incredible that the Government should really consider the calculated decline of what, in defence terms, remains a unique asset for the Alliance as well as for Britain—the Royal Navy — in order to perform a job which is of symbolic value rather than of military urgency, and which other members of the Alliance are better equipped to carry out.

I should like to refer once again to the speech by Lord Carver in the other place last week. He expressed the belief that a critical look would have to be taken at the number of regular infantry battalions. With the almost total disappearance of overseas commitments outside Europe, a figure of 56 battalions, of which 31 are stationed in the United Kingdom, is a large number in proportion to units of other arms, bearing in mind that infantry battalions are one of the easiest units to raise from reserves.

In the defence statement there is an essay entitled "The Seamless Robe". Let me interpose the thought that the original seamless robe was worn by our Lord on Calvary. It is entirely inappropriate to use that expression in this context. The essay entitled "The Seamless Robe" says that the forward defence of the Federal Republic is the forward defence of Britain itself". But so is the defence of our sea lines of communication. The essay says that were we to weaken our commitment we would send the wrong signals to friend and foe alike. That is not necessarily so—not if we were to up our contribution to our situation—our island situation.

Furthermore, our defence expenditure is 5.2 per cent. of gross domestic product, and Germany's is 3.3 per cent. Nor can I resist the temptation to draw the attention of the House to page 52 of part 2 of the defence statement, where I note that there are 20,100 multiple hirings in BAOR while there are 14,000 vacant married quarters in the United Kingdom.

The defence statement significantly reflects the multitude of challenges which face the Alliance. It scans the entire range of Alliance economic, political and military difficulties. If the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident raises serious questions about Soviet international behaviour, NATO, for its part, has yet decisively to raise the nuclear threshold by increasing its conventional defence posture.

The time for talking is over. We are now looking for results from the Alliance in relation to conventional defence improvement. Nevertheless, there is room for optimism. The United States and the Soviet Union have demonstrated a renewed willingness to improve relations. There are signs that Atlantic defence co-operation is improving, and there is increased emphasis, as I have argued again and again, on conventional arms improvement. My right hon. and hon. Friends are in no doubt that it is Labour's distinct approach in recent years to defence thinking that has provided the climate within which such hopeful developments have been possible.

9.35 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) for his kind comments and welcome, and I also thank my hon. Friends who have made kind remarks. It is a daunting experience to speak in my first defence debate, not least because of the relatively high proportion of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have held office in the Ministry of Defence. It is an unusual experience to have a little more time than the usual 10 minutes which a Back Bencher would be allowed to make a speech. I know that on this occasion I will not incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I exceed 10 minutes, but I will be cut off sharply at 10 o'clock.

Many interesting points have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members and I will try to answer as many as possible tonight. Before doing so, I would like to make one or two brief remarks about those aspects of the Government's defence policy which fall within my direct responsibility.

The most important asset of our defence effort is the people who provide its backbone. It is fundamental that we should have the people of the right quality in the right numbers who are properly motivated and trained. It is for that reason that the Government have given a high priority to the terms and conditions of service under which the armed forces operate. We have accepted and implemented the findings in each and every report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, although it was necessary to stage the 1984 and 1986 awards. I must stress that the increases, averaging 7.5 per cent., will be effective tomorrow and will be of permanent benefit to our armed forces.

We have made a number of improvements to specific allowances designed to compensate for the special demands of service life — for example, improved arrangements for those serving on full tours in Northern Ireland and abolition of the parental contribution to the third visit home each year by the eldest child at boarding school. We will continue to keep conditions of service under review and make any further changes that are justified. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the Select Committee, we are studying the adequacy and cost effectiveness of the range of allowances payable to service men to see whether any changes ought to be made.

The positive results of this policy are evident both in the high quality of our service men—we would all recognise the professionalism and skill which they bring to their task — and in our record of recruiting and retention. Although there are one or two specialist areas where we would like to do better — such as skilled trades and technicians where competition is traditionally strong — our recruiting targets are largely being met and the rate of voluntary outflow is well below that experienced by the armed forces in the late 1970s under the Labour Government. As my right hon. Friend told the Committee, there is some evidence that the rate of outflow is steadying and the Government will, of course, continue to give the position close attention. We are treating service men fairly, and they know and appreciate that.

I ought to say a few words about the support given by the armed forces to young people as this interests me especially. More than 80 per cent. of recruits to the armed forces are aged under 20, and within the forces we teach a wide range of skills from heavy goods vehicle driving to electronics and advanced mechanics. These skills are, of course, needed by our defence requirements, but they equally provide people with skills which stand them in good stead when they leave the armed forces.

I should also say something about the support given by the Ministry of Defence to young people through the cadet movement. The sheer scale of the movement is not always appreciated. It involves about 45,000 Army cadets, 35,000 air training corps cadets, 22,000 sea cadets, and 42,000 members of school combined cadet forces. I was pleased today to have had the pleasure of entertaining a party of sea cadets from my constituency who were visiting Parliament.

Each cadet service aims to develop in young people a sense of responsibility and awareness of the needs of others, self-discipline and initiative—in short, to develop the qualities of good citizenship. To realise those aims, the cadets take part in training and activities which draw on the spirit of adventure and develop qualities of organisation, discipline and dedication. The Ministry of Defence is able to support that programme with assistance on training equipment and facilities.

Mr. Bill Walker

Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that the air cadets now have the finest fleet of modern sailplanes anywhere in the world, thanks to the Government's procurement policy?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I should like to add that, in Northern Ireland, air cadets will shortly be able to use some new gliders. I am proud to be able to report that to the House.

All of these activities are well appreciated by the cadets concerned as exciting, challenging and worth while. None would be possible, however, without the enormous dedication and hard work of the unit officers and adult instructors who turn out in fair weather and foul to help them. I pay a special tribute to them.

Efficiency is about doing things better. In that respect, I commend to the House the financial and management information system which is being developed in the Quartermaster General's area with the assistance of outside consultants, but no doubt the House will wish to come back to that at the appropriate time, perhaps during the Army debate next year.

We are adopting an imaginative approach to the disposal of some of our high value sites in the defence estate. We are developing a rolling programme of land disposals using the proceeds to reprovide facilities elsewhere. The scheme is self-financing, and we expect to generate funds to support the defence budget and achieve major savings in maintenance expenditure. The first batch of proposals to be developed will be the rationalisation of defence holdings in north and west London. Our purpose is to reduce the estate to the minimum, consistent with defence needs, and to release land for other productive uses.

This year has witnessed the creation of a heritage area in the historic south-west corner of the Portsmouth naval base, which is no longer required for defence purposes. With several important listed buildings and docks, HMS Victory, the Mary Rose, the Royal Naval museum, Portsmouth, and the magnificently restored HMS Warrior, which is due to arrive in 1987, it has the potential, with suitable development, to become a unique monument to Britain's maritime heritage and a major tourist attraction on the south coast.

The project is very much a joint effort. I have just visited Portsmouth, and I should like to pay tribute to all of those who have played a role in the heritage area's creation. The Ministry of Defence has provided the site and HMS Victory, the Heritage Trust Partners its ships and museums, the Property Trust its expertise and Portsmouth city council has built a jetty for HMS Warrior and provided money and support in other areas. The Property Services Agency, the English Tourist Board and English Heritage have all played a part. Although it is at its early stages and will no doubt have teething troubles, which is usual with a project of such complexity, this is an exciting project. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing everybody who is associated with the venture a successful future.

Sir Antony Buck

Will my hon. Friend assure us that the McCarthy museum will feature, in view of the very generous gesture of Mrs. McCarthy, who gave our nation her magnificent collection of Nelsonia, built around the early portrait of Nelson, which, at the moment, is near the bottom of the gangway? I hope that that collection will be absorbed into the complex.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I shall look into the matter and write to him.

I now turn to the specific matters raised in the debate, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not cover all of them. Some issues will be more properly dealt with tomorrow by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement.

The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) addressed his remarks mainly to the nuclear deterrent. He said that the Labour party would cancel Trident, but he failed to answer two specific questions. The first was about the timing of any decision to cancel Polaris, and the second was how he could reconcile kicking the Americans off their bases in the United Kingdom and at the same time relying on United States nuclear support for NATO. That inherent contradiction was not dealt with properly.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about Trident squeezing our conventional capabilities. Mathematically it must be true that non-Trident costs will fall as expenditure on Trident rises, but that is a negative approach. Rather like much of the philosophy of the Labour party, he is looking purely at the sums contributed, not at the value that one can get from a specific block of money. As an accountant I would say that it was the difference between looking purely at an input analysis as opposed also to considering the output analysis. The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but part of my job is to ensure that we get better value for money.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Freeman

I am dealing with a point raised by the right hon. Member for Llanelli. It is appropriate to consider the value from a certain amount of defence expenditure, as well as the sum committed in pounds and pence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins) asked about allowances in particular. That is dealt with by the Defence Select Committee, and obviously the Government will review the whole Select Committee report carefully. I am paying particular attention to paragraphs 79 to 93 which deal with training, allowances and manpower. I remind him that a review of allowances is under way, and I emphasise that there is some statistical evidence that the recent increase in the premature voluntary retirement rate is slowing down. It has certainly not reached the high level from which the armed forces suffered under the Labour Government. We shall certainly keep the position under close review.

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) asked two specific questions about Trident. It was interesting that he said that his alternative, the minimum deterrent, was not as effective as Trident. That is a fair record of his speech and a fair summary of the alternative. I am sorry that I was not present for the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) who strongly supported our policy on Trident rather than the alternative deterrent advocated by the right hon. Gentleman.

The right hon. Member for Devonport asked about Trident's spending commitments. To date £2,400 million has been committed and £620 million has been spent. He also asked about the penalty clause— the provision in the contract with Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. which provides compensation for VSEL in the event of the cancellation of the contract for HMS Vanguard. There is no mystery about the clause, and the right hon. Gentleman will find a copy of it in the Library. I assure him that this is a straightforward commercial arrangement which is intended to provide VSEL with compensation for costs, not profits, properly and legitimately incurred in fulfilment of the contract. It is as simple and straightforward as that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall), the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne referred to the Merchant Navy. I am sure that they have had the opportunity of studying the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" with great care, but it might he for the convenience of the House if I quote two sentences that accurately summarise the Government's view on merchant shipping. They are on page 38 of volume 1. I note that the right hon. Member for Deptford did not think much of the presentation of the statement — a judgment with which I disagree. I draw his attention to this paragraph: There are, however, still sufficient ships of most of the particular types that we need to enable us to meet our foreseen defence requirements for cross-Channel reinforcement and direct support of Royal Navy operations … for the foreseeable future, most of our requirements are likely to be met.

Mr. Silkin

The hon. Gentleman is looking at the wrong table. That is table 1.3. I was drawing his attention to table 1.4, which shows the calamitous loss in officers, ratings and cadets in the Merchant Navy. We can have as many ships as we like, but if we have no one to man them, what good are they?

Mr. Freeman

I listened carefully to what the right lion. Gentleman said, and during his speech I looked at the table. I am sure that he will accept that the number of officers and men required to man a ship is a statistic that does not remain fixed throughout its life, but can change. There is also productivity in merchant shipping. I repeat the commitment that the Government have made on a number of occasions about merchant shipping.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) raised a question about the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the West's NATO forces. He said that all the evidence is that the Soviet Union genuinely wants to cut defence expenditure. That is a fair summary of the main thrust of his contribution. I hope that he is right, but I draw his attention to annex A, which discusses at sonic length the question of the military threat with which the Alliance is faced. I am sure that he has read this.

We do not claim that annex A is definitive. It is a complex and difficult task to assess the size and scope of the Soviet forces, but the general situation and trend are clear. The Soviet Union has large, formidable and well-equipped forces and—this is the key point—its rate of expenditure on them has quickened since 1973. The Soviet Union spends 14 to 16 per cent. of its gross domestic product on its defence forces — more than any other NATO country. Those forces will not simply be wished away, nor can they be ignored. The simple fact is that the expenditure, which is one measure of commitment by a country to its defence obligations, has been rising and is still at a high relative level. I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East is right. The Ministry of Defence has to respond to a clearly perceived threat which is borne out by the financial figures and the proportion of GDP that I have just given.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck)—

Sir Antony Buck

Well done for remembering ray constituency.

Mr. Freeman

I can remember the constituency because I wrote it down. I pay tribute to his experience and help He referred to the Falklands, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), and paid tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our armed forces overseas, and in particular in the Falkland Islands The topography and climate of the Falklands provide excellent opportunities for training, but stress that the level of our forces is kept under review to ensure that it is at the minimum level necessary to defend the Falklands against aggression. Numbers have been reduced steadily and are set out in the White Paper. The new airport should make it possible to achieve a further reduction in force levels without diminishing our ability to defend the islands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) asked questions about procurement policy and philosophy. He asked about our policy in relation to individual companies, particularly those with new and emerging technologies. He asked also whether we are still committed to the independent European procurement group. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement has taken on board his points and will respond to them in tomorrow's debate.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred, rightly, to the importance of our commitment to NATO and emphasised his belief that the United States has a key role to play in it. The Government are grateful for his support for those principal defence policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) visited the Falklands last year. He represents what was formerly an important naval port. I am grateful to him for stating clearly his interpretation of the Labour party's policy. It accords with mine. The policy of the Labour party is that Trident savings will be spent on conventional forces, albeit there would be the equivalent of only three divisions on the central front. None of the money saved would be available for increased spending on the social services. That statement is now clearly on the record.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) referred to helicopter procurement policy. The Government are fully aware of the situation at Westland. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may refer to that matter tomorrow. If the hon. Gentleman is able to be present at tomorrow's debate, I hope he will be content when he hears what my hon. Friend has to say.

I commend to the House the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said when he opened the debate, the theme of this and previous defence statements by this Government is one of steadily improving defences. The improvements in our defence capability have been outlined by my right hon. Friend and they are contained in detail in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". We have improved the organisation of our armed forces and of its civilian support, which is my particular responsibility. We have consistently improved pay and conditions for members of the armed forces. We are increasing the Reserves. As the House knows, the strength of the Territorial Army is to be increased over the next few years to a maximum number that will be in the mid-80,000s. That includes the Home Service Force.

The services have far better equipment now than they had under previous Governments. The task now is to offset the very modest reduction in the real resources that will be available over the next few years by continuing the improvements in efficiency and the rewards of competition in procurement. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there will be no need for any change in our main defence commitments.

My right hon. Friend said that the message of this White Paper is continuity, consolidation and realism within a sustained effort in support of NATO. As for continuity, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said that in defence policy one cannot chop and change. Since this Government came to office our defence policy has provided continuity. One does not pull up defence policy by the roots. As for consolidation, several right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the fact that we are at the end of a period of expenditure that has increased in real terms each year by 3 per cent. and also that we are into a new period of consolidation—

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)


Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman says "Reduction." I refer to the point that I made earlier. He is looking only at the amount of money that is voted by the House for defence. There is another dimension to the analysis of our defence capability: our ability on the ground, through better equipment that has been purchased over the last few years, to increase defence expenditure so as to defend this country and make our contribution to NATO.

In terms of realism, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there will be no major change in our defence commitments. Trident remains the key to our defence policy and we regard it as a cost-effective deterrent. The alternatives suggested by the right hon. Member for Devonport do not commend themselves to the electorate of Britain. Our main policy is to strengthen and sustain NATO. It is vital that the United States—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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