HC Deb 11 April 1989 vol 150 cc726-8
7. Mr. Tredinnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much more in real terms his Department has spent on conventional forces since 1978–79.

Mr. Younger

Up to the end of the financial year 1987–88, some £20 billion more had been spent, in real terms, on conventional forces than if spending had continued at 1978–79 levels. This figure takes into account GDP inflation during the intervening period and excludes. the costs of both the Falklands garrison and nuclear strategic forces.

Mr. Tredinnick

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that 95 per cent. of the increase in defence spending since 1978–79 has gone towards conventional forces? Will he give some examples of how this additional money for conventional forces has been spent?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend that the figure represents an enormous increase in the resources provided by the Government for conventional weapons, and has enabled us to provide resources, including 64 new ships, seven regiments of Challenger tanks and more than 500 new aircraft for the RAF.

Mr. Benn

Is it not a plain fact that the present level of defence expenditure in this country, the United States and the Soviet Union is far beyond that which is either necessary or possible for those countries to bear? Is it not clear that when Mr. Gorbachev says he wants to disarm, the reason why people believe him is because he also says that he wants to raise the standard of living of the Soviet people, which is what they want? There is now a much greater awareness in Britain that the present level of defence expenditure is starving the Health Service, education, the housing programme and other public services of the funds that they so urgently need.

Mr. Younger

There cannot be anything more urgent than ensuring that the country is safe and the people protected. However, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will fully realise, if he thinks about it, thanks to the Government's policies and NATO, we are now able to negotiate reductions in weapons with the Soviet Union from a position of safety without imperilling our own security. The right hon. Gentleman should be pleased about that.

Sir Antony Buck

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he announced should put an end to suggestions that conventional armed forces have been starved of funds because of our deployment of Trident and other nuclear weapons?

Mr. Younger

My hon. and learned Friend is correct. As I have said all along, the Trident programme is not only necessary but extremely good value for money. We have managed not only to achieve that but to make an enormous increase in the provision of conventional weapons at the same time.

Mr. James Lamond

Surely the Secretary of State heard President Gorbachev spell out once again at the Guildhall last Friday the unilateral reductions that Russia is making in conventional forces and call on the rest of the world to do the same. As an excellent opportunity arose in the talks following the Vienna agreement, should not the Secretary of State, instead of boasting about excessive expenditure, be taking positive initiatives to ensure that we help the world to achieve lasting peace?

Mr. Younger

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is a little behind the times. Mr. Gorbachev spelt out some of his proposed reductions, which we warmly welcome, but he did not mention that while he has been talking about reductions we have been making them. We have reduced our nuclear warheads in Europe by over one third in the past 10 years, which is the other side of the equation that the hon. Gentleman should ponder.

Sir Dudley Smith

Despite what has been said recently, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a big difference between the conventional forces of the Warsaw pact and those of NATO and a total imbalance in chemical weapons?

Mr. Younger

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a large difference. Even supposing that the Soviet Union had completed all the reductions that it has proposed but not yet effected, there would still be an enormous disparity against the West in tanks, guns and aircraft. None of the figures produced last week were able to counter that.

Mr. Rogers

The Secretary of State wants the penny and the bun. First, he boasted of how much more the Government were spending on defence, but then he said "Look how much we have reduced expenditure." He cannot have it both ways. Without boasting of the achievements of the Labour Government, is it not true that many of the decisions that resulted in the present level of conventional spending were taken in 1978 by Lord Mulley and that, contrary to what the Secretary of State would have the House believe, spending on conventional defence expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product is declining and is forecast to do so in the White Paper?

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman will know better than I precisely what decisions the previous Labour Government took, but it is clear that they did not provide the resources to carry them through. This Government, because of a much increased gross domestic product, have been able to provide extra money, which has enabled our forces not only to be properly paid but to have modern, new equipment, which they were denied by the cuts made by the Labour Administration.