HL Deb 30 March 1983 vol 440 cc1562-4

3.10 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 have estimated the requirements, in the event of a major war, of coal, oil and other sources of energy, of weapons and raw materials for their production, of skilled workers and of food for both the forces and the civilian population, assuming that the resources of NATO would be available; and how these estimates compare with their estimates of the strength of any likely aggressor.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, since the Government's review of home defence in 1980, emergency planning staffs in all departments have been engaged in estimating wartime supply requirements for civil and military use and in planning how to meet them. No simple comparisons can be made with the capabilities of likely aggressors.

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for doing his best to furnish me with an answer. I fear, however, that it is disappointing based on information that comes my way from two publications and no other source. There is no secret about it. The information is available to anyone. I believe that the Minister, like myself, is doing his best to try and prevent a war of any kind, nuclear or conventional. I am sure that that is the wish of every noble Lord in this assembly. Are we not faced, because of cuts, with a reduction in the production of the elements that provide energy resources and especially the deprivation of vast numbers of craftsmen who would be essential in the event of a major crisis that I hope will never happen? Will the Minister answer the last part of my Question. In military affairs we are strong. In logistics, we do not compare favourably with a likely aggressor. Will he answer that question?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I shall indeed try to answer. The noble Lord referred first, I think, to energy resources. I would remind him that, as he well knows from his past experience, the United Kingdom produces more coal than it uses and that the replenishment of coal is unlikely to be a problem. That should enable the supply of electricity to be maintained. Our gas supplies are entirely based on North Sea production. Denial of these supplies by enemy action would cause us to lose all gas and throw a heavy load on alternative supplies of energy, including, of course, electricity.

In time of war the Department of Employment would co-ordinate the use of skilled labour for domestic purposes and in support of the armed forces. This would be done so far as possible through existing labour organisations. The noble Lord is suggesting, I think, that we may need to recruit scarce skills in time of war. Your Lordships will realise that, in the present time of rapidly evolving technology, skills change and it is impossible to make block plans far ahead of requirements.

Lord Bishopston

My Lords, will the Minister give greater recognition to the importance of my noble friend's Question which is an echo of some of the contributions that I made in the debate on defence initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, when I claimed that in an emergency our human resources would be at least as great in their importance as our weaponry? In the short period for which this Government will have responsibility before the general election, how will the Government act to engage 4 million unemployed in the wartime effort, not forgetting the considerable contribution that could be made by our many senior citizens?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the importance of the human element in war has never escaped this country and has usually accounted for its victory. I give due importance to that and also to what was stated by Lord Shinwell, for whom I have had a steady regard from the day he inspected me as a cadet in 1947 when he was already, I thought, very senior and likely to retire. The noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, appeared to ask us to deploy 4 million unemployed in war effort before the next general election. We intend to abide by democratic rules. It is unlikely that the general election will be delayed beyond the outbreak of the next war.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, would not a suitable answer to the Question—one that might please the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell—be that if we were forced to stand on our own, our resources for defending ourselves would be minimal indeed, but that, standing shoulder to shoulder with our major allies and taking our due share of the burden, we are well able to cope with any opponent?

Lord Shinwell

My Lords, I have no desire to press the matter. However, as this Question is of such substantial importance I hope the Minister can find a satisfactory Answer. Will he refer the matter back to the Secretary of State for Defence and perhaps ask the all-party Defence Group to consider it?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord has played a prominent part in the winning of victories by this country standing shoulder to shoulder with others in two world wars. I do not need to remind him of that. I shall, of course, convey his conern to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. As to the all-party group, it is not, I think, a function of a Minister in this House, or indeed of a Member of any Front Bench, to dictate what that august body shall do with its time.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that so far as can be foreseen, if anything can be foreseen, the likelihood is that another war would be very short and very hot? Will he say whether the Government are satisfied that they have, above all, adequate supplies of ammunition, which has not been mentioned, rather than items which will sustain us for a long war that is unlikely to happen, anyway?

Lord Elton

My Lords, it is the duty of the Secretary of State for Defence to supply our forces in time of war. I have no doubt that he will do so. As to the duration of the campaign, and its nature, the noble Lord's opinion is as good as that of many others.