§ 1. Mr. Fisher
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he is taking to reduce the impact upon local economies following reductions in forces following "Options for Change".
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)
Local economic and environmental factors will be taken fully into account.
§ Mr. Fisher
I thank the Minister of State for that informative reply. I welcome the defence cuts, but I am concerned that the Government may implement them using solely market forces and a laissez faire policy. As the Government have at last accepted what we have been urging on them for some time—that there are real benefits in the peace dividend—will the Minister go the extra mile with us and accept that the reductions must be planned? Will he set up an arms conversion agency to plan them, so that when cuts are made in factories such as Radway Green in north Staffordshire and around the country the real benefits and skills there are used for constructive and positive purposes?
§ Mr. Clark
The cuts are being framed not around market forces but around the minimal requirement to ensure that this country is adequately defended against our enemies. The question of an arms compensation fund or conversion agency, or whatever Labour Members call it from time to time, is a hoary attempt by the Labour party to introduce interventionism and Government subsidy. What you are asking for—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] I apologise, Mr. Speaker. I meant "you" plural. Opposition Members seen to be aiming for a scheme whereby good taxpayers' money is used to counter-guess the commercial judgment of arms companies.
§ Mr. Batiste
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Leeds there is great pride in the skill and commitment at the Vickers tank factory in Barnbow? Will he confirm that the Challenger tank is performing according to requirements in the middle east and that the company is giving full support to British forces there? When will he be able to reach a decision on the Chieftain replacement?
§ Mr. Clark
I can confirm what my hon. Friend said. Challenger is performing extremely well in the region. I see the operational readiness figures every month, which show that it has averaged more than 90 per cent. throughout the period that it has been there, which included several difficult and strenuous exercises. Generally, it has taken part to the maximum in the preparations and the manoeuvres that are taking place at the moment.
§ Mr. Rogers
The Minister is on record as saying that he gives no thought to ethics in regard to defence procurement. Does that now apply to job losses in defence? Is his attitude just to leave defence cuts to market forces, putting thousands of people out of jobs? Is not it clear that the Minister does not have any ethics in relation to this aspect of defence procurement?
§ Mr. Clark
What a feeble question. The hon. Gentleman cannot have listened to the much better articulated question that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) asked. I have told him that, at all times, our first consideration must be to ensure that the country is properly defended. All of us agree that job losses are to some extent inevitable as defence orders for particular items of equipment contract. Those companies are extremely successful. Their commercial judgment will govern their decisions and I have every confidence that in the long term they will benefit from conversion to peaceful activity.
§ Mr. Trotter
Will my hon. Friend confirm that whatever the outcome of the "Options for Change" policy, there will, in the near future, be a need to buy a new main battle tank for the Army? Can he confirm that Challenger not only performed satisfactorily in Saudi, but has met all the milestones of development of Challenger 2 satisfactorily, on time and within cost? Does he accept that it would be wholly wrong economically, militarily and industrially to buy foreign tanks when we have a successful British product available?