HC Deb 03 November 1997 vol 300 cc9-11
8. Mr. Keith Simpson

If he will make a statement on his Department's contribution to Her Majesty's Government's comprehensive spending review. [11741]

Mr. George Robertson

The strategic defence review is my Department's contribution to the comprehensive spending review. There will therefore be one coherent review of defence.

Mr. Simpson

Given that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that the aim of the comprehensive spending review is to identify savings in all Departments, will the Secretary of State tell the House the extent of the savings that defence will make over the next few years—3 per cent? Five per cent? What is his base line for cuts below which he will resign?

Mr. Robertson

In the great history of brass necks in politics, I suppose that the hon. Gentleman does not shine out, but savings in this year's defence budget will have to be made to fill the holes in capability that his hon. Friends left. In addition to that, we inherited a 3 per cent. efficiency savings target from the previous Government. The hon. Gentleman was a special adviser to the previous Administration, so he knows a little about random, ad hoc, arbitrary cutting of defence budgets. Perhaps he should apologise to the House rather than boast.

Mr. Edwards

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives are in no position to lecture him on defence cuts, when defence expenditure was cut by one third in the past 10 years?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. They have no justification for lecturing us. Whereas we made specific promises, which we shall keep, they made promises about defence strength that contrast with their record of cutting defence expenditure by one third in real terms in the past decade.

Mr. Soames

Does the Secretary of State agree that the good and ambitious programme of jointery, which was started by his predecessor, is well worth continuing? Does he accept that substantial savings can be achieved by jointery, and by undertaking further joint operations and much greater joint support work? I am sure that he will be supported in those efforts by the Opposition.

What we cannot and will not support, however, are cuts where mergers are made just for the sake of mergers. Does the Secretary of State agree that the integrity of the single-service structure, even within the framework of enhanced jointery, remains at the core of defence policy?

Mr. Robertson

I can easily give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we shall keep the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the British Army. Like the previous Government, we shall want to look closely at how the three services co-operate, the better to improve the operations and procurement side of our defence. That makes absolute common sense and it is one of the key areas that we are looking at in the strategic defence review. The word "jointery" is a jargon expression which is virtually meaningless to the outside world. The ability of the three services, with a long and proud history, to work more closely together in an increasingly complicated and changing world is, however, something that most people would regard as common sense. I am glad to keep any tradition that makes common sense for the defence of this country.

Sir George Young

For the record, our support for Eurofighter is total and unqualified.

In the strategic defence review, the Secretary of State has laid particular emphasis on two considerations: first, the search for consensus and, secondly, openness. Will he now admit that his search for those two goals has been fatally undermined by his failure to publish the foreign policy baselines?

Mr. Robertson

We are all glad that the shadow Defence Secretary has belatedly given his full-hearted support for Eurofighter. It did not sound as if that was the case last week. I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has difficulty in coming to the support of anything that starts with the word "Euro" at this time. We all wish him well in bigger fights than those across the Dispatch Box—fights to see whether he will be sitting on the Front Bench at the next Defence Question Time and whether he will be there on his own terms.

I made it clear to the House last week that the Government would outline the foreign policy guidelines that would predicate our discussions of phase 2 of the strategic defence review through a series of speeches that I would make. I made a major speech at the English Speaking Union and a major speech, which I recommend the right hon. Gentleman to read, at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. That outlined clearly the Government's foreign policy priorities, from which we shall design the rest of the defence review.

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