HC Deb 28 November 1995 vol 267 cc1037-8
1. Mr. Batiste

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what would be the effect on the Government's procurement programme of reducing defence spending to the European average. [810]

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)

If any Government were to reduce spending to the European average of 2.5 per cent. of GDP, they would be forced to cut spending on defence by as much as £4 billion, That would have a devastating effect on our procurement programme.

Mr. Batiste

Is it not clear that the Government's policy of putting the front line first could not be sustained if we reduced defence spending to the European average? Would that not put 315,000 defence jobs at risk, and deny our troops the equipment that they need? Do not those who advocate such a policy—including many Opposition Members—put Britain's front line last?

Mr. Arbuthnot

Yes. Year after year, the Labour party conference has voted to cut defence spending to the European average. This year, members of the Labour party did not do that. They did not even allow themselves a vote, because they knew that they could not be trusted on defence. The entire country knows that Labour cannot be trusted on defence.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Do not some procurement issues depend on the management rather than on the size of the budget? Why has a lack of spares led to 30 Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft being grounded? Why has pilot training been restricted as a consequence? How are those developments consistent with the Government's stated objective of putting the front line first?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am pleased to say that the difficulties that have arisen over spares—partly because of industrial action at Rolls-Royce—are being rapidly overcome. They have not affected our ability to deploy Tornadoes at times when they are needed, and we are fully up to speed in making the aircraft available for the tasks that need to be done.

Mr. Mans

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we reduced our defence spending to the European average, the Eurofighter programme would be put in severe jeopardy? Does he also agree that rumours perpetrated by American aircraft companies that the Government are thinking of buying some F 16s instead of the Eurofighter should be nailed once and for all?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to correct the story that has recently appeared in the newspapers. We are not considering buying F16 aircraft in place of the Eurofighter; we are fully committed to the Eurofighter, and intend it to form the cornerstone of our air defence capability over the next century. In that context, I am pleased to be able to announce that the revised main development contracts for the Eurofighter were signed yesterday. That puts the project on a much tauter, more commercial and better basis.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Minister feel somewhat guilty about spreading the falsehood that the Labour party intends to reduce defence spending to the European average? Is it not the Government who have reduced defence spending by 30 per cent., with the result that the Army is 10,000 men short and call-up papers had to be sent to reservists yesterday? Is it not true that our Royal Navy has been reduced to 30 ships, and that of 36 planes at RAF Bruggen, only six can fly? Does the Minister agree with the Daily Mail that our services are now overstretched and undervalued?

Mr. Arbuthnot

No. The hon. Gentleman is being a little desperate. He knows that, shortly after the Labour party conference, 42 of his hon. Friends voted to cut defence spending to the European average. He knows that his party has voted for that time after time. Now he is calling for a fundamental defence review, but we know that he is scared to admit that what he really wants to do is to cut defence spending.

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