HC Deb 16 June 1997 vol 296 cc8-11
6. Mr. Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what priority is being given to defence procurement in the strategic defence review. [2045]

Mr. George Robertson

The strategic defence review will ensure that the armed forces are properly equipped to undertake the tasks that we ask of them. The Government are also committed to a strong British defence industry, as a strategic part of our industrial base as well as of our defence effort.

Mr. Evans

I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on their appointment. What progress has either he or the Prime Minister made in talks with their German opposite numbers on the European fighter aircraft? The Secretary of State will know that it is important to my constituency not just because of British Aerospace, but because of the number of smaller defence contractors who are dependent on the aircraft going into full production. Does he agree that the aircraft is important for this country's future defence capability and that we want to ensure that the Royal Air Force gets the best equipment possible?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I agree with the points that he has made. We made it clear before the election that we supported the Eurofighter programme and we shall order it according to the conditions and numbers previously announced. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Eurofighter is not simply about jobs because it will form the primary component of the RAF's fighting capability. Two weeks ago in Bonn, I met the German Defence Minister, Herr Rae, whom I have known for many years. He confirmed that the German Government wanted the Eurofighter and intended, if they could, to go ahead with it. He aimed to get agreement from the German Cabinet's budget meeting on 11 July.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met Chancellor Kohl on 6 June, the Chancellor made clear his personal commitment to the Eurofighter programme and his aim to secure the German Government's commitment to the production phase in July within the framework of the draft 1998 federal budget. Those were extremely good signs for the future of the Eurofighter programme and we await with great interest the outcome of the German Government's review.

Mr. Barry Jones

In welcoming my right hon. Friend, may I persuade him of the great importance to Britain of the future large aircraft project? In my constituency, 2,500 Airbus workers manufactured the wings of the Airbus airliners and would like to manufacture the wings of the future large aircraft. Will he receive a small deputation on the matter, particularly bearing it in mind that the late delivery of the Lockheed C 130J has let down his Department so far?

Mr. Robertson

Over the 18 years that I occupied the Opposition Front Bench, I never realised how popular one could become if one became Secretary of State for Defence: the offers to keep me company in my office every hour of the day or night, to discuss every procurement contract, warm me enormously.

We do not intend to impose a moratorium on existing contracts as part of our strategic defence review. Business will proceed as normally as possible and projects already under contract will continue. For future contracts, we shall consider major equipment projects according to their individual circumstances and in relation to progress on the review. I shall certainly consider meeting my hon. Friend, but he may find that his best first step in putting his case would be to request a meeting with my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Gilbert, the Minister for Defence Procurement.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

I add my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman and his ministerial colleagues. Does he accept that the Eurofighter project enjoys all-party support—despite the fact that his predecessor, Mr. Michael Portillo, entertained the notion of leasing second-hand F16 aircraft for the Royal Air Force, which would undoubtedly have undermined the whole Eurofighter project?

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that the defence review will not be a smokescreen behind which the Chancellor of the Exchequer can mount a dawn raid on the defence budget?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his warm welcome. I look forward to working with him and the official Opposition spokesmen in building what will be a genuine consensus on defence. For too long, defence has been a political football. I hope that our strategic defence review will, at long last, bring about the consensus on defence that I believe is wanted by the vast majority of people.

I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's support for the Eurofighter project. It should be understood that it is important both for its European symbolism and as a major multinational contract to build a European aircraft to meet European needs.

I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that the strategic defence review will be foreign policy led, based on the priorities that we believe are important for this country in the world as a whole. It will not be predicated on savings in any other budget. We shall look for value for money in everything on which the defence budget is spent—the people expect no less than that—but I repeat that the review will be foreign policy led and not Treasury led.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

When the defence review is finally under way, how independent will it be of service pressures?

Mr. Robertson

We shall listen to the views of the services, just as we shall listen to the views of the public. We also intend to take into account the views of the Opposition parties and the views of experts. Through the two seminars that will be organised in July, and through our invitation to the public, we intend to bear in mind as many different views as possible before reaching a considered conclusion. Obviously, the services will contribute their views—as they rightly should.

I have made it clear to the troops, at every level, that I expect to hear their views as to what they want the outcome to be. I visited the Royal Naval college at Greenwich last week, where the joint senior command course is being held. The services represented there include the civil service as well as the police force. They are carrying out their own strategic defence review, and I have asked for a copy of that to be submitted to me so that I can build it into our considerations.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman and his team to their important positions. Is it true that there are papers circulating within the Ministry of Defence envisaging spending cuts of £3 billion or more?

Mr. Robertson

If there are, they are probably left over from the last Administration. On a more conciliatory note, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. After 18 years in opposition, I know how he feels. After 18 years, he might have half a chance of getting it right.

I know of no papers suggesting budget cuts. We shall put the foreign policy priorities of this country first and then give a sense of clarity and direction to our forces as to how their roles can be properly and economically carried out for the future of our country.

Mr. Radice

I welcome my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to their new positions.

May I say that, as a former officer in Her Majesty's Coldstream Guards, I am absolutely confident that the defence strategic review is a good idea? I am also confident that Her Majesty's defence is in good hands.

Mr. Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend—who is one of my oldest friends in politics—for his kind and generous remarks. On Saturday, the Guards regiments performed Trooping the Colour with their customary skill and professionalism, as I am sure that the public noticed.

I also thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for the strategic defence review. Despite a few grudging remarks from one or two small quarters, the idea for such a review was welcomed by people from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament right across to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), Mr. David Hart and Mr. Douglas Hurd. They all support the idea that the United Kingdom should examine both our defence needs in an international context and how to marry our military resources to those needs. I hope that we can maintain that broad consensus of welcome until the exercise is completed.

7. Mr. Spring

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence the continuation of which procurement programmes will be under consideration in the strategic defence review. [2046]

Mr. George Robertson

There will be no moratorium, and business will proceed as normally as possible. Decisions on major equipment programmes not yet under contract will be considered on their individual circumstances and in relation to progress with the review. Projects already under contract will continue.

Mr. Spring

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the crucial importance of advanced and effective anti-armour weaponry in modern warfare. Therefore, will he assure the House that, in any strategic review, the Brimstone programme will not be put in jeopardy?

Mr. Robertson

We shall examine all procurement proposals in the light of the strategic defence review proposals. We shall not have a moratorium and do not believe that there should be a further long period of uncertainty for our armed forces. Avoiding such uncertainty is why we are proceeding quickly with the review, which will report by the end of the year. The time period is sufficiently brief to ensure that there is no further uncertainty for those who, in the past five years, have experienced maximum uncertainty, but is also sufficiently ambitious to ensure that the right decisions are made.

Mr. Cohen

In the procurement programme, will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not purchase any more "use it or lose it" weaponry—which is weaponry that has to be used in an early strike?

Mr. Robertson

We shall look at all the procurement projects proposed by the military that are considered to be in the interests of the country's defence. The strategic defence review will examine some future proposals, but it will not affect current procurement decisions.

Sir Patrick Cormack

In warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman and the tone of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), may I ask him to agree that nothing is more corrosive of morale than uncertainty? Will he give a firm undertaking that, when the review is complete, there will be no further attempt to examine or cut down the armed forces during the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Robertson

It would be foolish and rash for any Government to say that, irrespective of circumstances, nothing will be re-examined. We are conducting a major strategic review, and, as the hon. Gentleman will have registered, it has been welcomed by a wide cross-section of opinion, including senior members of the Conservative party. The review offers an opportunity for everyone to become involved in the process of reaching a considered decision. Clearly, however, we shall have to bear in mind any changed external circumstances and ensure that our armed forces are ready for any future threats that might develop.