HC Deb 11 February 1997 vol 290 cc128-9
6. Sir Irvine Patnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received on the effect on maintenance of existing military equipment of reducing United Kingdom defence spending to the European average. [13719]

Mr. Portillo

A reduction in UK defence expenditure to the current NATO European average would involve cuts of around £5,000 million a year. That would have a devastating effect on the capability of our armed forces.

Sir Irvine Patnick

Would not such an action—which has been endorsed by Labour conference after Labour conference—reduce employment in places such as Sheffield and the defence capability of this country? The bleatings from Opposition Members show that that is Labour's intended defence policy, which must be deplored.

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have been treated this afternoon to a display by old Labour, and we have seen the old danger lurking within the Labour party. [Interruption.] One Labour Member after another has risen to make his case, and some of those who are now jeering agree with those hon. Members. We know that Labour wishes to cut our defences and that many Labour Members would like to reduce our armed forces to the armed wing of Oxfam. We must not let those policies into this country. Labour cannot be trusted on defence.

Dr. Reid

I do not know about old Labour, but it is nice to hear the old pacifist—the old conscientious objector. He is the first in history to become Defence Secretary while forgetting his past. He stands there posing as the Braveheart of the defence budget, but the truth is that he has cut the budget by 31 per cent. in real terms—the RAF by 31 per cent. and the Navy by 38 per cent. The louder he roars, the more he proves his own inadequacy, and his incapacity to defend this country's defence budget.

Mr. Portillo

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is interested in the truth, but let me tell him once and for all that I have never been a pacifist or a conscientious objector. He entirely misses the point. European countries have in general reduced their defence spending, but Britain remains towards the top of the European average. His party wants to reduce our defence spending to the European average. In other words, whatever reductions may have been made, his party wants to cut defence spending further. He does not have to look far to see those—they are now looking away—who want to cut defence spending to the European average. The difference between where we are now and the European average is £5,000 million; he cannot wriggle off that figure.

Sir Dudley Smith

Is not my right hon. Friend absolutely right to say that our defence spending in the past 17 years has been creditable compared with that of many of our European counterparts? Should there not be an increase in defence spending in other European countries to help provide a stable Europe in the future?

Mr. Portillo

Any talk about a greater European security and defence identity must be based on European capabilities. Levels of defence spending across Europe today are appreciably lower than they were, and that is why I have no aspiration to descend to the European average. That is why we must resist any party—or any party that is full of members—dedicated to reducing spending to the European average. That party is the Labour party, and that is why we cannot trust it.

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