HL Deb 01 February 1990 vol 515 cc416-20

3.22 p.m.

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

By how much defence expenditure is planned to grow in real terms between 1988–89 and 1991–92.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, on current projections of inflation the planned defence budget for 1991 to 1992 is greater by just under 1 per cent. in real terms than defence expenditure in 1988 to 1989.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the present level of defence expenditure was decided some years ago to meet a threat from the Warsaw Pact which has since ceased to exist? Does he further agree that the new threats call for a budget of a different kind which is smaller in size? Is it not preposterous now to increase in real terms the level of defence expenditure? Is there not an overwhelming case for an immediate defence review?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we shall at all times continue to provide the resources necessary to maintain our security and to maintain our responsibilities within the alliance. At the same time we shall continue to pursue arms control agreements which enable our security to be maintained at less cost. Furthermore, we shall not take any steps which could prejudice the prospects for a CFE accord. At a time of heightened uncertainty in Europe, any budgetary decisions which had the effect of narrowing our options for the future would be very unwise.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the Government will recall that twice in the lifetime of many of us the failure of successive governments to provide adequately for national defence brought us to the verge of defeat and involved us in long and terrible wars? Will the Government always keep that recollection firmly in mind and not be led astray by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend speaks wise words. It is with those recollections firmly in mind that we shall not reduce our defence budget. The right answers should only emerge after clear and rational thought, not as a series of knee-jerk reactions from those who do not carry the responsibility for the defence of our country.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the Minister include among those he accuses of knee-jerk reactions President Bush?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I regard that as a somewhat facile remark in these circumstances. I should make it quite clear that we support the proposals of President Bush for further defence reductions in the United States and in Soviet stationed forces in Europe as part of the agreement being negotiated in Vienna at this time. The proposals were discussed with us in advance and we indicated our support. I should remind noble Lords that the United States spends a higher proportion of its national income on defence than any other major European country. Naturally it wants to make some reductions.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, it appears that the United States is trying to get its defence expenditure down to our level. Is it not time that the Government looked at other European nations with a view to getting our expenditure down to the level of those nations? It is not merely a question of listening to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, although he is no mean expert on the subject. The advice he has received has come from many parts of the world. Action is being taken on this issue by the United States, the Soviet Union and other European countries but the Government are standing out for no good reason whatsoever except that they have made their decision and they are determined to stand by it even if they are wrong. Is that not the case?

The Earl of Arran

No, my Lords; that is most certainly not the case. I hope that I have made the reasons why the Government are not reducing the defence budget extremely clear in the past few minutes. Furthermore, at the last meeting of the defence planning committee in November 1989 all NATO defence ministers committed themselves not to make unilateral reductions in their force levels that would undermine the prospects of a CFE accord. That is the position we shall maintain.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that things are moving quickly? Is he also aware that we on this side of the Chamber are just as concerned about the defence of the realm as noble Lords opposite? However, are the Government not aware that things are now moving helter-skelter in Europe with the reunification of Germany high on the agenda? Is it not sheer complacency for the Government not to consider now radical alterations to their defence deployment, including alterations to the number of troops in Germany, so that when action has to be taken it can be done on a reasonable and planned basis?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord makes the case for exactly what I have just said. As he pointed out, because things are moving with such speed and with such uncertainty in the rest of the world, particularly in the USSR, we shall continue to maintain our guard and keep it up until, and if, things improve. Certainly under previous Labour governments defence reviews meant defence cuts whatever the consequences for national security.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend not concerned that despite all the sweet and honeyed words that have come from the Soviet Union and the intentions which we believe are to be carried out, the production of submarines, particularly nuclear submarines, and the production of tanks in the Soviet Union has increased steadily since Mr. Gorbachev came to power? Until there is some reality, would it not be unwise to start disarmament while huge defence superiority exists in the Soviet Union?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend is of course right on that point. The production of submarines is still increasing at a considerable rate. I also agree with my noble friend that we must keep up our guard until, and if, things improve considerably in that part of the world,.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, does the Minister not appreciate that the historic changes that have taken place in the political map of the world, especially in Eastern Europe, call for a major response from Her Majesty's Government? If the principle of flexible response has guided military policy over the years, how about some flexibility of response in military expenditure at this time? Will the Government take heart from the intention of President Bush to make reciprocal cuts in troops in Europe and give the British people the prospect of a peace dividend? Will the Minister bear in mind that there are many people in this country who want to share in that peace dividend —those who want homes, those who want better education and those who want a better health service?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we should all like to share in the benefits which the noble Lord mentioned. However, for the time being they will not come from a lowering of our defences in this country. I want to make that quite clear to the noble Lord. Regarding his point about flexible response, a flexible response is the best means of deterring aggression in a nuclear age. At all times it ensures that any aggressor would face the risk of unacceptable consequences. That is the best guarantee of effective security.

Lord Denham

My Lords, we have already taken 24 minutes on this business.

Noble Lords


Lord Denham

My Lords, I believe that the feeling of the House is that Question Time has gone on for rather longer than it normally does. The House has already expressed a wish; the Procedure Committee has recommended and the House has endorsed that recommendation that Question Time should last for 20 minutes. We have now taken 24 minutes. The time has come to make a statement, unless the House disagrees with me.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am sure that the House accepts the general proposition that we should follow the Procedure Committee's advice on these matters. However, in this case I believe that when the foreign affairs spokesman of the Liberal Democrat Party rises to his feet to ask a question the House would be prepared to listen to him. It does not help proceedings when the Government Chief Whip mumbles in his seat.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I shall of course give way to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition, but I had hoped for his support on this occasion.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, does the Minister disagree with the former United States Secretary of State for Defence who said that the military balance in Europe has been radically altered? Should we not respond to that alteration rather than sitting pat? Does he not also agree with the former Secretary of State, Mr. Schlesinger, that high ceilings of defence in Western Europe legitimise a Soviet presence instead of encouraging Soviet withdrawal?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we shall respond to that particular point when we think it appropriate.

We do not believe that it is appropriate at this moment.

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