HL Deb 02 June 1981 vol 420 cc1109-12

2.48 p.m.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to revise the Defence Estimates which have been circulated; and whether a date has been fixed for consideration of the Estimates by this House.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, planned defence expenditure remains as published in the recent Public Expenditure White Paper (Cmnd. 8175) and the Supply Estimates 1981–82, though the latter will have to be increased to take account of the Armed Forces pay award. The longer term review concentrates on how best to apportion the increasing expenditure. As to the second part of the noble Lord's Question, a Motion in my name to take note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1981 will appear on the Order Paper in the near future. I understand that the debate will take place on Wednesday, 1st July.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that reply and should like to take the opportunity of congratulating him on having survived the massacre, which seems to me to be a tribute to the House of Lords. Can the noble Viscount clarify the issue somewhat because of what has appeared in the press media and in other quarters? Do the Government intend to revise any part of the Defence Estimates which have already been submitted to both Houses of Parliament, although we have not debated them? If there is to be a review, what is the intention? If there is to be any fundamental change, or if there are to be only minor changes, may we have an assurance that both Houses of Parliament will be able to debate the whole subject of defence before the Summer Recess?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his congratulations. First of all, as my initial Answer was intended to imply, we are firm on the increase in real terms of the budget by approximately 3 per cent. per annum, the estimate currently being 8 per cent. over three years. So far as the revision of the estimate is concerned as a result of the long-term review, this stems from the over-expenditure of the current budget—which, as I have said, is being increased—and that in turn stems from the escalation of costs of modern equipment combined with the ever-changing threat backed by modern technology.

Against this background my right honourable friend, in the usual long-term review which takes place every year, has this year had to look with greater care than ever on how to allocate this budget as, due to the cost escalations I have mentioned, the bids for the budget exceed the increase being made. Both Houses of Parliament will obviously have opportunities to debate it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced in the other place that he plans to make a Statement in July, with time for a debate in the other House in July.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, may I ask a further question? As there seems to be some dubiety about the intentions of the Government—and I say that without meaning any offence; this matter of defence should, in my view, be above party anyway—may I ask whether we can get an assurance, if it is possible to give one, that there is to be no weakening of our maritime strength, because, in the opinion of I think a majority of Members of Parliament of both Houses, that would be an action that would make our defence much of a nonsense?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I appreciate and indeed endorse the noble Lord's sentiment that defence should be kept as far as is possible above party. So far as the noble Lord's second supplementary about maritime strength is concerned, there is no question but that we have to meet all the possible threats from our potential enemies, including the maritime area. The review, against the background of the huge escalating costs of modern equipment, is how best to do that. I do not think I can go any further at this stage in anticipating the outcome of the current long-term review.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, by the time we have the promised debate in July will the House be told how many officers and men will be sacked by the Royal Navy? Does the Minister realise what enormous damage has already been done to the morale of the service by the threatened cuts? Can he say whether the cost savings which will be achieved by these cuts are more, or less, than the cost of the Trident programme?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord's question is really relevant to the situation. We are not cutting. We are increasing defence expenditure far more than previous Governments have done, and shall continue to do it. It is a question of how to allocate that increase. So far as the morale of the Services is concerned, including the Royal Navy, which will have an important role—and its submarine role for sure is expanding—I believe that it is much higher than is anticipated, and I say that against a short background of having been the Minister for the Navy as well as the Minister of Defence Procurement for a week.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, does the noble Viscount really mean that the Government are not cutting defence? What does that mean to men in the Territorial Army who are having their man-training days cut?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I do not know whether I can be clearer on this point. The numbers in our Services since, say, 1951 have come down very materially as weaponry has become much more formidable and much more costly. This is the central long-term problem, apart from various short-term problems. This is the inevitable evolution of technology and the awesome power of modern weapons. As such there will be changes and there will be some cuts in numbers of some parts of the Services, but the overall situation is that our budget is being increased by 3 per cent. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the review he is carrying out has the greatest sympathy with the role of the voluntary reserves and territorials as he has stated in the other place in the recent debate. I can only ask the noble Lord to await the outcome of the review to see his decisions in relation to the Territorial Army and the reserves.