HC Deb 06 February 1990 vol 166 cc748-50
6. Mr. Leigh

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on defence policy in the light of the latest developments in east Europe.

Mr. Tom King

We shall continue to provide for the strong and assured defence of the United Kingdom, and to meet our NATO and out-of-area obligations. We shall maintain the conventional forces that we need for those tasks, together with an independent nuclear deterrent. The future structure of our forces will need to take account of international developments and progress in arms control negotiations; and naturally we shall continue to examine options for change, subject always to assuring the United Kingdom's fundamental security.

Mr. Leigh

My right hon. Friend is right to be cautious. The events in eastern Europe are as momentous as their outcome is obscure. Is my right hon. Friend aware of a growing body of opinion among those whose commitment to defence is not in doubt, that if we are to avoid dangerous delays in future, contingency plans may have to be made now for what may be forced on us: a traditional alliance based on strong maritime defence and a well-equipped, home-based Army? It would be a tragedy if the Government, having so decisively won the cold war, were to fail to inherit the uneasy peace.

Mr. King

I entirely understand why my hon. Friend speaks as he does. If he studies my answer, he may feel that it meets the points that he raised.

Mr. James Lamond

When the Soviet Union was alleged to be strong and in full command of the Warsaw pact, we were told that it was impossible to contemplate disarmament. Now that the talks at Vienna are going very well and President Bush is negotiating troop reductions with President Gorbachev over the heads of NATO, why does the Secretary of State for Defence still say that we need the strongest possible defence and to build more nuclear weapons? Will he tell us when and in what circumstances we can begin to dismantle our nuclear weapons?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman referred to the United States Government negotiating over the heads of their allies. I should like to pay tribute to the consultation from President Bush, Mr. Eagleburger, Mr. Gates and General Butler, whom I had the pleasure of meeting on Monday before I went to Washington, well in advance of the communication with the Soviet Union that confirmed the President's proposals.

Mr. Duffy

Two days' notice.

Mr. King

It was earlier than that. That consultation was extremely helpful to us, enabling us to support President Bush's proposals and the changes that are taking place in eastern Europe, which we hope will endure and which offer the prospect of economies and changes in our defence arrangements.

Sir Jim Spicer

In looking to the future, will my right hon. Friend make it quite clear that he will not react to what I call the immediate "action man" calls from Opposition Members, but that any statement that he makes and any review that is undertaken will be measured, will take account of all the circumstances and will, in particular, bear in mind the absolute certainty that we need to change the weight of defence policy from armour to airborne?

Mr. King

We certainly need to ensure that we maintain effective security for our country and that we make an effective contribution to the Alliance. Those are our clearly stated objectives. The point was well put by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement that it is easy to stop things, but it is very much harder and takes very much longer to start them again. Some of the procurement processes in which we might be involved to ensure the long-term security of our country can be very long indeed.

Mr. Sean Hughes

Which specific conditions need to be satisfied for the Government to argue the case for NATO to revise its strategy on flexible response?

Mr. King

This is part of the general consideration that we take—

Mr. Hughes

I referred to specific conditions.

Mr. King

No, it is not a question of specific conditions. We must keep under review the changes that are taking place. There is not some quick trick or some smart answer to this problem. We must make an overall assessment of the threat that we face—whatever it may be or from wherever it may come, not just in western Europe—to determine what effective response to make.

7. Mr. Viggers

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in NATO on the defence implications of recent developments within eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Tom King

The last NATO meeting was on 28 and 29 November. Since then, I have had meetings with my German and French colleagues, as well as my visit to Washington last week for discussions with Mr. Cheney. In addition, I met informally a number of other NATO colleagues last weekend at the Wehrkunde conference.

Mr. Viggers

Having sat through yesterday's debate on the Royal Navy, I should like to ask whether my right hon. Friend shares my concern about the siren voices of Labour Members urging us to contemplate how to spend the so-called peace dividend. Does he agree that this is the modern equivalent of what used to be called careless talk? The right attitude, surely, is to work carefully with our NATO colleagues, bearing in mind the comments of its Secretary General that there are many destabilising, and prospective destabilising, elements in Europe, not least of which is the uncertain status of a prospective united Germany?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend highlights the dishonest approach of the Labour party. It claims to support NATO's policy of maintaining an effective and credible defence, yet it claims that the peace dividend should be made available immediately for spending. The British people recognise that dishonesty.

Mr. Cartwright

As there is clearly a need to reshape NATO's forces to take account of the changing threat, is not it essential that that process is undertaken on an Alliancewide basis rather than by unilateral cuts? Is the Secretary of State happy that some NATO members seem to be determined to cash in the benefits of arms control before the cheque has arrived in the bank?

Mr. King

I certainly agree that any changes must be made after consultation among allies and must follow clear advice from the military advisers, under the leadership of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Galvin, to ensure that whatever changes and reductions are made, they maintain the military credibility and effectiveness of Alliance defence.

Mr. William Powell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday I attempted to cross the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg gate and that despite my possessing a British passport the East German border guards, courteously and correctly, directed me to Checkpoint Charlie, because British citizens are able to cross from West to East Berlin only under a treaty signed in 1948? Is not that completely out of date, and will my right hon. Friend discuss with our NATO partners, as a matter of urgency, the revising of the arrangements for Berlin so that they more accurately reflect current and contemporary practice?

Mr. King

We welcome my hon. Friend back from his interesting visit and I take note of his point. I suppose that it is technically correct to say that it does not merely involve our NATO allies if he is seeking to regularise the point that he mentioned.

Mr. Douglas

The Secretary of State should not stay in the ranks of the Tory troglodytes when even someone as obdurate in relation to the Soviets as Richard Perle recognises that there are changes in the eastern bloc. Can the Secretary of State not bring himself to contemplate the distinct change in the threat from the Soviets and from the so-called Warsaw pact and move towards a reassessment of our defence strategy, which would enable us to look more carefully and fruitfully at Mr. Gorbachev's overtures and to give him some assistance in his present difficulties in the Soviet Union?

Mr. King

Everyone is aware of what appear to be the fundamental and irreversible changes that are taking place, but I counsel the hon. Gentleman to realise how fragile the present situation is. At the very moment when I was talking to some Congressmen in Washington last week, a message was brought in to say that President Gorbachev had resigned. It transpired subsequently that it was an incorrect rumour, but it brought home clearly how fragile the situation was. The nervousness in that room brought home to me just how insecure the present position is.