HC Deb 09 January 1990 vol 164 cc806-11
5. Mr. Beaumont-Dark

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the implications for defence procurement of recent events in eastern Europe.

Mr. Alan Clark

We welcome recent moves to towards democracy in eastern Europe and hope that they will lead to a sustained improvement in East-West relations and enhanced stability and security in Europe. Certainly those events and other developments will continue to form an important part of the background to our considerations of procurement decisions.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be widely welcomed among thinking people in the House, because of the troublesome and turbulent times through which Russia is going? Any country that has 386 generals who may find themselves unemployed may decide to make dangerous incursions, and that shows that it is not warmongering to be safe, but making sure that we have peace.

Mr. Clark

I welcome the note of caution sounded in my hon. Friend's question, against the background of reckless optimism that I have heard in some quarters. Certainly, the events in eastern Europe have reduced the likelihood of confrontation, but I think that we would all agree that they have not enhanced the stability of that region.

Mr. Douglas

Does the Minister not accept that the threat from the Warsaw pact countries in total has significantly diminished, so the posture of the United Kingdom Government, when they endeavour to retain defence expenditure between 5 and 6 per cent. of gross domestic product, is preposterous in current terms? Should we not be thinking carefully, in view of the implications of a rundown in defence expenditure, about how we can shift from defence manufacturing to civil manufacturing, to meet the needs of eastern Europe and the Third world?

Mr. Clark

Such changes are purely matters for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned. It may be possible for the Soviet Union to switch its industry, as it has a command-led economy of a fairly Socialist kind. We have heard much ill-thought-out nonsense from the Opposition Front Bench about socially acceptable jobs and funds to shift industry from one form of production to another. I am confident that the flexibility and sense of innovation of British industry will be equal to the events, should they arise.

Mr. Jack

In the light of my hon. Friend's current procurement programme, will he tell the House how his Department will react to the contents of the West German Defence Minister's letter about the decision on radar for the European fighter aircraft? Can he tell my constituents, who are involved in building those planes, when they can expect to have an answer?

Mr. Clark

That subject is under close and detailed discussion between the two Governments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will be meeting the West Germans in the near future. No decision has yet been made, but we are fully aware of the great merits of the ECR 90 system.

Mr. Leighton

Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for the relatively sluggish performance of the British and Soviet economies—and even some difficulties for the American economy—since the war has been the huge burden of armaments that we have borne, and the amount of research and development that we have had to invest? West Germany and Japan, on the other hand, have benefited from not having to bear that burden. Would not the beating of swords into ploughshares as early as possible be very much in our national interest?

Mr. Clark

All Government spending is a matter of priorities, and the electorate give their verdict on spending programmes at election time. The House will, however, be interested to learn—and I have no doubt that Opposition Members will welcome this—that social security spending is three times as much as defence spending.

Mr. William Powell

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be entirely wrong for British defence policy to be adjusted to meet considerations that may be short term? Will he ensure that any changes in the defence budget reflect long-term changes rather than purely temporary factors?

Mr. Clark

Every Minister responsible for procurement is a victim of the fact that leads and lags in weapon orders ensure that that consideration is observed, whatever private intentions may be.

Mr. O'Neill

Following the changes in eastern Europe, against whom will the laser guns fitted to type 22 frigates be deployed? Why have those weapons been shrouded in secrecy for so long, and will Britain join the United States and the Soviet Union in giving an undertaking that they will not be used in any peacetime exercises?

Mr. Clark

It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make such a fuss—and his off-the-cuff remarks on the subject were an absolute disgrace. He made the ludicrous comment that the weapon was a very dangerous means of self-protection, but surely it is desirable to possess a system that guards against trigger-happiness, and against any repetition of the incident when the United States shot down an airliner by mistake.

This is a purely defensive weapon with no offensive capability, and it is an essential adjunct to the Royal Navy's armoury in difficult waters where it may not wish to shoot.

6. Mr. Hind

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to change Britain's defence policy in western Europe following the recent changes in the Governments in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

Our policy in western Europe is based on strong support for the NATO Alliance. NATO's commitment to seeking dialogue with the East while maintaining a strong collective defence has undoubtedly contributed to the welcome changes taking place in eastern Europe.

Mr. Hind

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that, although there have been welcome changes in eastern Europe, it is probably more unstable now than at any time in the past 25 years, and that our defence posture must therefore be cautious? Before making any moves towards a change in defence policy, will my right hon. Friend consider that Mr. Gorbachev has a much stronger hand on the Soviet Union—particularly in relation to dealing with the nationalist movements that are arising on the fringes of the Soviet Union, which would destabilise the whole country and possibly lead to a military takeover?

Mr. King

I support my hon. Friend's comments about potential dangers and instability. Siren voices suggesting that all the problems were over were heard in a previous defence Question Time, and I remind the House that since then all the events in Romania have taken place and President Gorbachev has threatened to resign. While everyone of good will wishes a successful outcome to the current exciting and important developments, no one can conceal the instability and potential danger of the position.

Mr. James Lamond

If we were prepared to engage in the conventional forces in Europe talks in Vienna when the position in eastern Europe and the Warsaw pact was much more threatening that it is today, why are we still dragging our feet now? Why has no progress been made in the fourth round of talks, and why does this country not take the initiative in ensuring that money is saved, so that it can be used properly for social purposes, both here and abroad?

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman seems to ignore the active part that we are playing, as a full member of NATO, in the current discussions which we hope will lead to a successful treaty on conventional weapons reductions in Europe during the current year. Our policy is clear: what we wish to achieve—our responsibility to this country and our allies—is greater security at lower force and armament levels. We are determined to achieve that aim, and the possibility is there, but it must be soundly based.

I do not know how many hon. Members listened to the answer that I gave just now. No one can pretend that the present circumstances, especially the developments in the Soviet Union during the past month—the speed of change, and the uncertainty in the area—do not mean that we must do all that we can to advance the cause of peace, while maintaining the security of our country.

Sir Jim Spicer

It has rightly been said today that it will take time for the Ministry of Defence to bring forward its study and decide what the procurement policy should be. In the short term, however, does not my right hon. Friend agree that it would be right and proper to equip properly the fifth airborne brigade with the necessary number of helicopters, so as to make it truly a mobile brigade which is capable of going into action immediately?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said that the exact balance of battlefield provision is under study. My hon. Friend, with his close interest in these matters, understands very well that the leads and lags in the procurement programme make it important not to change anything without all the background details against which decisions can be made. That is why we shall make sure that at all times we do not put at risk the security of this country.

Mr. Buchan

After the historic events of the past two or three months, is it not sad that the Conservative party is completely incapable of understanding or attempting to respond to them? Mr. Gorbachev has been taking enormous risks and is running into enormous danger. Due to his actions, the world can now be more hopeful. Does not the Secretary of State have a responsibility to respond? Can the Government not assist Mr. Gorbachev to face the dangers in which he has placed himself? His actions have been on behalf of humanity. For God's sake, act.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman has a very suitable selective memory. Many of us have often seen him rise to his feet from the Opposition Benches to oppose the stand for freedom, justice and liberty in eastern Europe that we have taken. At the very time when the strength and unity of NATO has ensured the possibility of progress and freedom in Europe, I totally reject his intervention.

Hon. Members

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall hear the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan).

Mr. Buchan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am accused on every occasion in the House of opposing freedom. That is a vile calumny and lie. It is disgraceful. The Secretary of State obviously did not listen to a word of what I said during our debates on the Official Secrets Act 1989. If anyone has argued continually in the House for freedom, it has been me and not the Minister. He should withdraw.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We often hear rough statements in the House, but I do not think that an attack has been made on the honour of the hon. Member for Paisley, South, whom the whole House respects.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members warmly support the Government's defence policy? Does he not agree that it is ludicrous to ask for a change in defence policy until we make progress on arms reductions with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries?

Mr. King

Throughout the years we have stood for the strong defence of our country and for freedom, democracy and dialogue. It is that which has achieved progress. It is monstrous for the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) to suggest that somehow we are holding up that process.

Mr. O'Neill

Will the Secretary of State be participating in the 35-nation talks in Vienna next week, on doctrine and strategy? If he does not intend to participate in those talks, will his representative convey the need that is felt throughout the House and the country for genuine vision in Britain, taking account of the fact that the future order in Europe will be based not on the security of two blocs but on the security of 35 nations working together in one new grouping?

Mr. King

I shall be represented by the Chief of Defence Staff and the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff at the talks in Vienna. We shall continue to play a constructive role in trying to strengthen security and peace in Europe. We take some pride in the progress that has been made. Opposition Members complain about a lack of vision when we are achieving more progress, better understanding and a greater chance of peace than we have had in 40 years. We do not consider that that shows a lack of vision.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

As I initially supported the upgrading of short-range nuclear weapons in Germany, I ask my right hon. Friend carefully to reconsider this matter. Has he noticed the views of Lord Carrington and others that such a proposal is unrealistic in the present circumstances, bearing in mind the fact that those weapons will be pointing at East Germany?

Mr. King

My hon. Friend is aware that at the NATO summit those matters were agreed under the comprehensive concept and it was decided that they should be reviewed in 1992. In view of the rapid rate of change and the developments that are taking place, that is an eminently sensible position to adopt.