§ 2. Mr. Corbyn
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will institute a full strategic review of Britain's current defence requirements.
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
We continue to keep our defence policy as a whole under review, both with regard to the strategic situation and in respect of specific commitments.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for a serious review of Britain's defence expenditure, which now totals more than £23 billion a year? Should not we cancel the nuclear missile programme and consign all nuclear missiles back to base as part of a programme of worldwide disarmament? Should not we try to cut conventional expenditure to at least the European average, which would save £6 billion a year? Should not we also ensure that skilled workers who are at present manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and other forms of armaments are put to making socially useful products, including materials for the health service and housing industry—and recognise that world peace is best achieved by people working for peace rather than by arming themselves for war?
§ Mr. Rifkind
It is good to hear the legitimate voice of the Labour party speaking without fear or favour, representing the views of the Labour party conference, and no doubt putting in even more eloquent form the words that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) would like to say but dare not.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
Will my right hon. and learned Friend re-examine the respective benefits of a static, costly and inflexible presence on the central front in Germany— subsidising in effect German jobs—as against the flexibility, mobility and fire power of the landing platform helicopter assault carrier, which can be sent anywhere in the world when required, either to preserve the peace or to intervene in case of war? Surely the benefits are to be found with the latter rather than the former.
§ Mr. Rifkind
We certainly recognise that priorities have changed, which is why the strength of the British Army of the Rhine, for example, is to be reduced from 60,000 men to 23,000 men, and the reason for a 50 per cent. reduction in our dual capable aircraft and other changes of that kind. My hon. Friend's general proposition is already well recognised and is built in to the plans and programmes that we currently have available.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
Does not the Secretary of State owe it to his own reputation, if not to the House, to show a little more intellectual rigour in the matter of a defence review? At a time when resources are falling, how will we be able properly to match commitments to resources unless there is a robust analysis of our commitments or there is likely to be? When the Chief Secretary to the 772 Treasury told the House a few weeks ago that it should be willing to think the unthinkable, did not that apply to defence as much as to health?
§ Mr. Rifkind
Of course it is desirable to look rigorously at each and every element of our defence policy. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman's yearning for a formal defence review appears to be based on the belief that such a review would provide a once-and-for-all assessment of our defence needs that would attract unanimous support. In fact, controversy would remain, many people would dismiss the review's conclusions as out of date as soon as the print had dried on the paper, and we should be left only with a considerable increase in uncertainty and instability.
Let me emphasise to the hon. and learned Gentleman that, although we must examine specific components on a continuing basis, the world changes from year to year. The idea that a defence review would somehow answer all the problems in a simple and straightforward way is naive and unrealistic.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
When conducting his regular on-going reviews, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that, below a certain level, any outfit or organisation ceases to have a critical mass? Will he remember that the Royal Air Force has already carried out a one third reduction in its all-weather air defence capability and a 38 per cent. reduction in its long-range strike capability? Even in the current changing circumstances, it should not be a candidate for further reductions which are likely to cause it to fall below the level that will make it viable in future.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I properly attach great importance to the needs of the RAF. My hon. Friend should be reassured by the news that the RAF's single most important project —the Eurofighter 2000—is to continue, thus ensuring that the RAF will be able to cope with the responsibilities imposed on it for generations to come.
§ Dr. David Clark
In view of the story emanating from the Secretary of State's Department last week that the Royal Marines are to lose their landing capabilities, and this week's story that the Parachute Regiment would lose its parachutes, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what daft scheme he has cooked up for this week? Has he thought how much money he could save by depriving the RAF of aircraft? Does not all the nonsense emanating from his Department prove our point about the need for a full-scale strategic defence review, so that the shape of British defence spending may actually match our defence needs?
§ Mr. Rifkind
The hon. Gentleman is not at his most impressive when he relies on unattributed press rumours for his questions. He is well aware that those who call for formal defence reviews normally do so because they are scared of commiting themselves to any individual defence policy.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, in January 1992, an Opposition Treasury spokesman said that defence cuts could arguably become the North sea oil of the 1990s? Does not that comment put in context many of the current criticisms—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows better than to question a Minister about policy for which he has no responsibility.