HC Deb 11 March 1997 vol 292 cc129-31
5. Mr. Nigel Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recommendations arising from "Options for Change" are yet to be implemented.[18039]

Mr. Portillo

All the restructuring arising from "Options for Change" has been completed.

Mr. Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our services have dealt admirably with the changes that have resulted from "Options for Change"? Does he agree that a peace dividend can be spent only once, and that we have spent it? The last thing our services need is a review such as the one threatened by the Labour party, should it form the next Government. We all know what a review means: it is new Labourspeak for cuts, cuts and yet more cuts which would savage our services and wreck procurement jobs in the north-west and elsewhere, decimating defence manufacturing industry in this country.

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend speaks with real feeling because jobs are at risk in his constituency and in other constituencies throughout the country. He is absolutely right to say that the armed forces led through the "Options for Change" exercise—and led brilliantly. That enabled our armed forces to adapt to change better than those of any other country. That has now been done; we are now adapted to the new world in which the cold war is over.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the defence dividend cannot be taken again and again. Because we have kept our defence strategy fully up to date, there is no need for a strategic defence review. The only reason for the review proposed by Labour is to initiate defence cuts. The attitude of Labour Members shows that they do not care about defence. Even if there were a Labour Secretary of State for Defence who cared about defence—I do not see one in prospect—he would get no support from his Back Benchers and would thus be naked in the struggle to defend the defence budget.

Dr. Reid

That is priceless, coming from the man who instigated the biggest cut in, and the most shambolic continual restructuring of, the armed forces every year for the past decade. Does he realise that any review that we carried out, unlike his efforts, would start by involving the chiefs of staff? Unlike his, it would guarantee two years of financial stability, as we have already made clear. Unlike his, it would interleave foreign affairs and defence, giving us some form of strategy. And unlike him, we would avoid the annual big-bang restructuring.

Have not the right hon. Gentleman and the Government been incoherent in strategy, incompetent in finance and indifferent in welfare? We have always known that the Tories cannot be trusted with the health service; we now know that they cannot be trusted on defence either.

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman leads with his chin. He has no authority whatsoever from the shadow Chancellor or from the Leader of the Opposition to say that there will be stability under a Labour Government. He has authority to say only that there will be a defence review, and that is why at no time will any Labour Member say what we need to hear: that any of the projects that this Government have ordered are exempt from the defence review. They will not say it because they are not authorised to do so—they are under the thumb of the shadow Chancellor and of the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition wrote in The Daily Telegraph that it would be dishonest to claim that Labour would restore defence to its former level, so the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) should not risk being dishonest with the House today.

Mr. King

The necessary changes in "Options for Change" were designed to achieve lower manpower levels but ensure that that manpower had the best equipment available in the world at that time, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which that programme has been carried through. I was struck by one particular feature during the period in which the changes were introduced—I was conscious of the united concern of Conservative Members that our defences might be put at risk. Is he aware that, in contrast, no such concern was expressed by Labour Members? All we heard was exactly what we have heard repeated this afternoon—Labour Members pleading for individual equipment orders and pretending that they are in favour of defence, but actually calling for cuts in overall expenditure on every possible occasion.

Mr. Portillo

The strategy conceived by my right hon. Friend has been carried through with great success, and I pay tribute to him for that. We in this country have been willing to undertake difficult changes involving the reduction of numbers and the reduction of the number of bases from which we operate. As a result, we have been able to put more and more money into defence equipment. A rising proportion of the defence budget goes into the sort of equipment that would enable Britain to triumph in future conflicts. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, throughout that period, he faced legitimate concern from Conservative Back Benchers and no concern from Labour Back Benchers, and that it is the same today. I have been sustained during my two years as Secretary of State for Defence by the tremendous support that I have had from behind me. Any Labour Secretary of State for Defence would know that what his Back Benchers wanted was savage defence cuts to bring us down to the European average—but Britain is not of the European average.