HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 cc184-6
9. Mr. Allan Roberts

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what action he proposes to take in the light of the conclusions of the Defence Committee in its recent report on the progress of the trident programme, with particular reference to the allegedly inaccurate evidence given to the Committee by his Department.

Mr. Younger

A formal Government response to the Committee's comprehensive report will be made in due course and it would be inappropriate for me to anticipate that response. I was, however, pleased to note that the Committee felt that the Trident programme was generally well run.

Mr. Roberts

Is the Minister aware that the Government are still misleading the House and the country about the cost of Trident? The Ministry of Defence is being economic with the truth rather than economic with taxpayers' money, and the Select Committee on Defence has condemned the Ministry for misleading the Committee and not telling the truth to the House.

Mr. Younger

That is a serious charge. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate our response to a Select Committee report. He is completely wrong to say that we have misled the House on the cost of Trident which is decreasing in terms of foreign exchange costs and actual costs. I should have thought that he would be pleased to know that.

Mr. Brazier

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that whatever figure we take for the cost of Trident, it represents a comparatively modest proportion of our future defence spending and, as such, is excellent value for money? Will he further confirm that at least one of the two main parties remains firmly committed to that programme, although both were committed to it nine years ago?

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. By any standards, the cost of Trident is extremely good value for money. I repeat that 95 per cent. of our much larger defence budget is spent on non-nuclear defence. That answers the other part of my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Douglas

Will the Secretary of State reflect on the balance between a strategic defence commitment to Trident and the need to maintain, as the Select Committee on Defence said today, a viable surface fleet with more frigates and destroyers in operation than the number that he has available now? Will he give us a straight answer about the number of frigates and destroyers that are in operation today? When will he update his commitment to place orders for at least three frigates by the end of June?

Mr. Younger

The size of the Royal Navy is at a very high level. There are about 143 commissioned ships, and the Government intend to keep about 50 destroyers or frigates as part of a large and effective fleet. At present, 47 ships are available for service—and very valuable service they are doing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that whereas 10 years ago frigates and destroyers spent 27 per cent. of their lives in refit, today they spend only 12 per cent. of their lives in refit, which is a great improvement.

Mr. Franks

May I remind the Secretary of State that the calculation of the cost of Trident has been based on an exchange rate of £1.30 to the pound? In view of the recent, but long-sustained, increase in the exchange rate, is it not time to take a new exchange rate and thus reduce the figures presented to the House?

Mr. Younger

My hon. Friend is correct to say that the movement in the exchange rate has an effect on these matters. It has been a convention that towards the beginning of each year we announce the recosting of the Trident programme, and we base that figure on the exchange rate of the previous June. It is best to keep the figures comparable by using the same system on each occasion. As my hon. Friend knows, in each of the past two years there have been substantial reductions in the exchange rate costs and the actual costs of the Trident programme.

Mr. Foulkes

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is irresponsible to keep on building nuclear-powered submarines while we still have no safe way of disposing of the propulsion units when they are decommissioned? Will he comment on the reports in the Scottish press on Sunday that he has decided to consider disposal of those units at sea off the coast of Scotland? Has he decided that, and at so, when will a formal announcement be made about it?

Mr. Younger

That report in the papers on Sunday had no basis in fact. No such decision has been taken. It is inescapable, because so many nations have nuclear-powered submarines, that their disposal must be considered. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have been considering the problem for some time.

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