HL Deb 27 April 1982 vol 429 cc775-8

2.39 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in view of the cost of moving forces into the South Atlantic they will later introduce a supplementary estimate in order to avoid seeking countervailing economies in other parts of the defence budget.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, it is much too early to estimate the extra cost of the deployment of forces in the South Atlantic. The treatment of the cost will of course take into account the need to maintain our defence in all other respects. Decisions on the treatment of cost are not appropriate at the present time.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask whether he can assure us that no economy steps will be taken which will weaken our vital contribution to NATO's defence against the increasing Soviet threat? Secondly, is not one of the lessons that such ships as the Leander class and the Type 12, although somewhat long in the tooth, can be of great value in such operations, and ought not these to be taken off the disposal list and maintained in short notice reserve?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for drawing attention to the continued Soviet threat and I think that my original Answer to him makes clear that we are mindful of the fact that our defence must be maintained in full. As regards the use of particular classes of ship at the present moment, I think that the operation has shown that really only this country, apart from the super powers, could possibly mount an operation of this size at this notice, and I believe that there is nothing in our future plans which would prevent us from doing the same in the future if it were ever, unfortunately, necessary.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, why not get on with the war and damn the expense?

Viscount Trenchard

That, my Lords, is what I can assure the noble Lord we are doing.

Lord George-Brown

My Lords, I think that my noble friend—if I may embarrass him by so calling him—has failed to answer what seemed to me to be the really valid part of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing. Will he now come forward at some stage with some policy assurances which make it clear that the cuts that it was proposd to make in surface vessels and things of that kind will, as a result of this exercise, not be made? Of course, in order to do that my noble friend will have to bring forward a supplementary estimate, will he not?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I think that that is a separate question which my right honourable friend would be prepared to meet when the immediate operation is over. I do, however, have to repeat that there is nothing in the plan for the defence of this country, which still stands having been established last July, which amounts to a reduction of the ability of the surface navy to mount this kind of operation. The fact that we use the ships that are available at the current time does not mean that there are not ships of in fact greater fire power which will be available in future years.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most reasonable people would accept that it is premature to try to draw any conclusions from what is happening in the South Atlantic at the present moment? However, when we are in a position to draw some conclusion from what is happening now, one hopes that the Government will not have a closed mind as to what the future needs will be in the light of the experience that we are going through at the moment.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that there will never be a day when we shall not study any relevant experience in relation to the future.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, since some of the ships that are involved in this operation were due to have been scrapped within a very short time, including one of the aircraft carriers, would not the Minister like to reconsider his assertion that nothing in our future defence plans would prevent us from mounting an operation of this size and complexity in the future?—because, surely, if those ships had been scrapped, as was planned, no immediate replacements would have been available to the Navy.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord has not studied the Defence Review or the annual Estimates. The policy of Her Majesty's Government has been to maintain two carriers—two carriers will be maintained and are planned to be maintained. The fact at the moment is that we have one old carrier and one new carrier. Under the plan as announced to Parliament last year, we shall move to a situation where we have two brand new powerful carriers. I give that as an illustration of what I said just now; the fact that we use all ships—old and new, being paid off service and coming into service—as necessary at the present time is not a reflection on the power of the fleet for the future. I have given the assurance that when current matters have been dealt with and are over, any lessons that need to be drawn will, of course, be observed.

Lord Byers

My Lords, when will these two brand new carriers be commissioned? What date?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, we are wandering from the Question. I am relying on my memory, but in 1983 another carrier, the "Illustrious", is due to come into service, and in 1985 the "Ark Royal" is due to come into service.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, is not the trouble with this sort of half war that it is both extremely expensive and no stimulus to production, whereas, on the other hand, if we had a couple of years of real war it might even be enough to pick up the slack which the Government have left in the economy?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, in so far as the noble Lord's comment refers to this Question, in the end the extra cost will probably be found to be less than some noble Lords might imagine, because this is the use of our forces and not an addition to them. The cost of maintaining them is very considerable in any event. The extra cost is of a lesser order, depending on the outcome of the eventualities.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, as these troops are now on active service, can the noble Viscount say whether they will receive the nightly rum ration, which is customary in such circumstances?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, the noble Lord can ask the question, but because it does not refer to the original Question, I shall not answer it.