HC Deb 01 November 1989 vol 159 cc302-3
2. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what discussions he has had with United Kingdom defence manufacturers about developing alternative non-military products, in the light of any possible reduction in demand for weapons.

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

None, Sir.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that many of our traditional industries have suffered because they have failed to recognise changing markets in the world? Is it not clear that if the east-west disarmament talks are successful, and there is also a reduction in regional conflict, the world's arms markets will be reduced? Does he agree that in those circumstances, it is only commonsense for the Government to discuss with arms manufacturers ways in which they can look for new products and new markets so as to secure the jobs of those who work for them without continuing to be purveyors of death to the world?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is, perhaps, slightly less than candid with the House. The prime motive behind his question is his long-standing commitment to slash defence expenditure. For example, the House might like to know that in July 1983, long before Mr. Gorbachev began his present policies, the hon. Gentleman was seen to be voting against the Defence Estimates. His question exposes the Labour party's long-standing hostility to a credible defence policy.

Sir Peter Emery

Does my hon. Friend realise that nothing in his reply applies to me? As the science and technology committee of the North Atlantic Assembly travelled across Russia in September, it discovered that there was a major move within the Russian nation to reverse the current ratio of 60 per cent. scientific and technological research to 40 per cent. civilian. Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the major difficulties in achieving that is getting industry to bring it about in a five to seven-year period? Would not discussions along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) therefore have quite a degree of success for the benefit of our industry, irrespective of the defence aspect?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is a great deal more persuasive than the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) because his credentials are so much better. The plain truth is, however, that it is for the defence companies to assess where their markets lie. We are seeing an encouraging move in the direction outlined by my hon. Friend—by Racal and Marconi, for example—but we are not in the business of driving people where they do not want to go.

Dr. Bray

The Minister has been giving singularly stupid replies. Far from making good the cuts in defence research and development that they have made over the past three years—amounting, in real terms, to some 10 per cent.—the Government have added to the problem by cutting their support of civil industrial innovation by 11 per cent. Furthermore, research and development expenditure in 1988–89 was some £40 million below what the estimate provided, so the Government have even cut back on their own plans of just one year before.

Is the Minister not aware that all of that is having disastrous effects, particularly on the profit expectations of the electronics industry? No fewer than five defence contractors, including Ferranti, have been up for sale. Does the Minister not want any British manufacturing industry to survive?

Mr. Hogg

That is a singularly silly question, coming from the hon. Gentleman. He must find his party's defence policy extremely disquieting. The Labour party conference committed itself to defence cuts of approxiamately £5 billion, which means a reduction of some 30 per cent. in conventional defence spending. Just think of the unemployment consequences of that!

Mr. Devlin

Does my hon. Friend agree that the many defence contractors in the north of England will be extremely wary of any Government who tell them which products they should be making and which they should be getting out of? Does he agree that defence manufacturers throughout the north and, indeed, the whole country will be very anxious about the future if Labour ever came to power and cut defence by £5 billion?

Mr. Hogg

Indeed, and I can be more specific than my hon. Friend. I have a list of six substantial defence contractors in the constituency of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—Reemploy Limited, Thorn EMI, Oldham Crompton Batteries, Rotunda Limited, Robert McArd Limited and Denton Containers, to mention only the largest. I imagine that employees in those companies will be extremely alarmed by the views of the hon. Member who purports to represent them.

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