HC Deb 09 February 1993 vol 218 cc809-10
3. Mr. Jim Marshall

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the role of NATO in a future European security policy.

Mr. Rifkind

NATO will remain the principal mechanism for the promotion of collective security and stability throughout the Atlantic area and the forum for agreement on policies bearing on the security and defence commitments of its members.

Mr. Marshall

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, indefinite though it is. Does he agree that the success of NATO over 40 years was based on the imperative of defence and that, although the alliance had political structures, they were very much secondary and subordinate to that imperative? As a consequence, NATO was often much bigger and more effective than the sum of its parts. In the absence of that imperative, and with political differences and difficulties coming to the fore, might there not be a serious possibility that NATO could be fatally weakened and undermined?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that, with the ending of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the circumstances in Europe for which NATO was originally designed have changed radically. We cannot assume, however, that all risk has disappeared. Clearly, Russia remains a nuclear super-power and while—at the moment—it has a friendly Government seeking to introduce democracy and western values, we cannot assume that to be a policy which will be achieved with great success in the foreseeable future. In addition, NATO must find ways of making available its valuable and expensive assets in order to contribute to other problems of security, as it is currently doing in, for example, former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Has my right hon. and learned Friend any plans for extending operational sea training facilities to other NATO navies? If so, will he produce some nice glossy brochures to sell the services of Portland rather than promoting the virtues of spending £600 million on new office blocks for Ministry of Defence civil servants?

Mr. Rifkind

I fully understand my hon. Friend's natural concern about that issue. As he will be aware, over the years we have already provided opportunities for sea training for other NATO countries. The United Kingdom is seen as a valued source of such training, and I am sure that it will continue to be so wherever sea training takes place.

Mr. Nicholas Brown

Will the Secretary of State confirm the importance of Britain's amphibious programme to future European security. In particular, will he repeat in the House what he said on "Newsnight" last week—that the Navy's new helicopter carrier is not to be cancelled to pay for the Army changes that he announced last week?

Mr. Rifkind

Amphibiosity continues to be a useful asset for the armed forces and, although it has not been used in recent years, it is, nevertheless, an important capability.

As for the landing platform helicopter, I repeat what I said in the House some time ago. We are continuing to evaluate the tenders that we have received. There is no question of cancelling the order to pay for last week's announcement about Army manpower. The continuing need for the LPH must be properly assessed on its merits, and that is how we shall proceed.

Mr. Ward

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the changes in NATO have meant that there is an even bigger role for the amphibious forces? Important though the landing platform helicopter ship is, so are the replacements for the landing ships for the Royal Marines, who are probably the most efficient and cost-effective armed forces in the world. Can we ensure that they have the means with which to get to the places where they are required to work?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is certainly entitled to point out that the present reliance on the landing platform docks to develop an amphibious capability continues to be important. We do not have an LPH at present, and we have not had one for several years. It is a question whether we should enhance the amphibious capability by proceeding with that order. My hon. Friend is right to draw that point to the attention of the House.

Dr. Reid

Here we are, five years and more after the end of the cold war, and today the Select Committee on Defence has illustrated once again what the Opposition have said for the past two years: the Government have no strategy on defence, no policy on security and no idea where they are going. How on earth can the Secretary of State pretend to fashion European defence policy when he has not a clue how to fashion British defence policy? Would he not do better to save himself another U-turn and a lot of time and trouble by telling the House today that he will instigate a full defence review? Alternatively, does he intend to go on as he has over the regiments and the dockyards, staggering from pillar to post and doing a disservice to himself as well as to the country and to the armed forces?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman could not even present his point with a straight face, which is not surprising as he represents a party which has done a complete somersault on nuclear disarmament and whose party conference—

Mr. Skinner

We are in a nuclear-free zone here.

Mr. Rifkind

I entirely concede that there are at least three Labour Members to whom my criticism does not apply. The Labour party conference continues to call for massive 25 per cent. reductions in the defence budget, so the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who speaks from the Front Bench, should start to convert his own party supporters before he tries to instruct the Conservative party on a proper defence policy.