HL Deb 06 May 1981 vol 420 cc132-4

2.40 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the recent statement of the Minister of Defence in another place that when he wants to change the estimate of the cost of Trident from £5 billion he will do so (Commons Hansard, 14th April, col. 144) means that any rise in this estimate depends on his personal judgment rather than on that of experts who are already predicting that the figure of £5 billion will be greatly exceeded.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence—including all its experts—are responsible to the Secretary of State, who answers to Parliament for defence matters. He has given information on the cost estimates of Trident on several occasions, as I have also in this House.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can we assume that as soon as evidence of any likely increase in the cost of Trident is available it will be published by the Secretary of State? May I ask the noble Viscount another supplementary question? At what point in the likely, almost inevitable, escalation of the costs of Trident will the Government be prepared to abandon this unfortunate project?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an assumption in the latter part of his question to which I do not intend to address myself. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in the column before the column quoted in the noble Lord's Question, the estimate of £5 billion remains at the present time the best estimate we can give.

Lord Peart

My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I strongly support the noble Lord who speaks for the Liberal Party. I think there is a degree of arrogance which ought to be counteracted. I am sorry to say that. I am asking the noble Viscount will he very soon give us an opportunity to question this poilcy?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I am sorry if the noble Lord feels that there is a degree of arrogance in my answer, but it is not as though this question has not been discussed in debates in the other place and on Questions in this House, including one put down by the noble Lord for Written Answer: I have a list—but I will not weary the House—which numbers nine occasions this year when this subject has been discussed or answered on Questions. Hence my feeling that, for the time being and until some of the options which my right honourable friend has explained are being studied have been studied, to pursue this question is a little superfluous.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend for the benefit of the House indicate whether there is a misprint in the Question as it is printed on the Order Paper? Should not the figure be £5 billion rather than £5 million?—otherwise it seems that we are getting Trident on the cheap.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, my copy of the Question, which is a printed one, says "£5,000 million", which is of course £5 billion.

Lord Beswick

My Lords, would the noble Viscount agree that the number of questions probably reflects the importance of the issue? Secondly, is it not rather difficult to give an estimate of the cost before a decision has been made as to which mark of the Trident will be procured?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, to take the second question first, I point out that it has been made clear in the debates on this matter in this House and also by my right honourable friend on numerous occasions that the decision to date has been to buy Trident I. This was well discussed in the debate raised in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and followed by a special Question, although for the moment I cannot remember the name of the noble Lord who asked it. I think that the estimate that was made last year, and which has been updated to a small degree by my right honourable friend, refers to Trident I. That has been made entirely clear and the main areas of the options that we are still looking at have also been made clear.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the estimates made 20 years ago concerning the price, cost and upkeep of the Polaris missile system, and the submarines in which it is fitted, have held good throughout that period and in fact are less than the estimates made by the Minister at that time? Is that not an outstanding position and does it not give us confidence that at least every conceivable effort will be made to keep this project within the bounds already outlined by the Minister?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for drawing our attention to that fact. Certainly other estimates have been completed in accordance with original estimates. So I know of no reason at this stage why this estimate, which is not an exact figure, should not be taken as the best estimate available at the present time.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, can the noble Viscount tell us what is the estimate on the Paper? Is it £5 million?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the correct figure is £5 billion.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I hope that the Minister of Defence does not take too much notice of naval experts? They have committed terrible errors in the past. They gave us the submarine with dummy funnels that was withdrawn after six months because we nearly suffocated. Then they gave us the submarine called the M1 with a 12-inch gun and a half-inch shell which went down off Portland Bill in 1921. Does he realise that I would hope that the Minister who is cutting social services right, left and centre, might cut here as well?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, again I cannot go into the details which the noble Lord with his experience knows in this particular field. But our shipbuilding design capability—and with that goes estimation capability—is, I think, efficient. I wish that one could say that the whole of our shipbuilding industry was thoroughly competitive, but internationally our design capability and our experts on shipbuilding are regarded as being certainly equal to any in the world and possibly superior and in the main it is they who have made this estimate because the main part of this cost is, of course, for the submarines to be built in British yards.

Lord Carver

My Lords, would the noble Viscount not agree that whatever the sum of money involved it would be better spent on conventional forces?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, as the noble and gallant Lord knows well, I would not.