HL Deb 15 February 1990 vol 515 cc1461-4

3.9 p.m.

Lord Mayhew asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will review the size and balance of the defence budget.

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

My Lords, the Government will continue to provide the resources necessary to assure the defence of the United Kingdom and to meet our wider obligations. The future structure of our forces will need to take account of international developments and progress in arms control negotiations; and we shall continue to examine options for change, subject always to assuring our security.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does that mean that until agreement has been reached in the CFE talks in at least a year's time, we shall be continuing with the same structure and balance of our forces as we did before any of the revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe? Does it mean that we propose to spend more on defence in real terms this year, next year and the year after? Is that not a lunatic policy?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, most certainly it is not a lunatic policy. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, knows very well that the situation in Europe is uncertain and potentially unstable. We must always move with caution: as long as a capability exists for aggression we must maintain a defence which is able to deter it.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, despite the reference to lunatic policies by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew—and he speaks on that subject with authority—can the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to bear in mind that twice in the lifetime of many of us we went into wars from which we suffered and which we very nearly lost, largely because in time of peace we had failed to provide for adequate national defence?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, those words are almost precisely the same as those used by my noble friend about a week ago concerning this question. The points that my noble friend makes today still hold good.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, I speak as one who absolutely agrees with the Minister that Britain should be armed to the teeth against any possible aggression, full stop. Nevertheless, does he not agree that international reactions right across the world have led to a lowering of tension? I am sure that all noble Lords are pleased to hear that. Does the noble Earl further agree that it is time for the Government to say "If armaments are lowered we will be among the first to do so and thereby reduce our defence budget"? Is that not logical?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord that we shall continue to examine our options.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, must be defended on the charge of belonging to the loonie Left? No such membership is possible in his case. Does the Minister agree that the Government themselves are vulnerable to such a charge, particularly as regards Trident? Can the Minister say what possible use there can be for continuing with this absurd project?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that the position of the United Kingdom on Trident is well known in that superpower arsenals would have to be reduced substantially below 50 per cent., with no significant change to the Soviet defence capability, before we could consider how best to contribute towards arms control in the light of a reduced threat.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, in view of the — —

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that though there may be many weaker European countries at this time, the same amount of armaments is still there? Does he not agree that in some respects that makes the position even more dangerous and even more necessary for us to make sure that our own armaments are sufficient?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct. At all times we must be fully aware of the capabilities of the Warsaw Pact.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, in view of the current major changes in Eastern Europe in particular, is the Minister prepared to say a little more about the changed priorities of the Government? Can the noble Earl say when the Government expect to announce any change at all in the existing defence policy?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I should have thought that the answer to that is very obvious; namely, that we should continue to watch very carefully the developments between East and West and to take decisions, if and when necessary, according to circumstances.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Russians have a gigantic navy and particularly in respect of submarines? Does he further agree that it is by no means certain, given the instability within Russia, that the present regime there will stay in power?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can inform my noble friend that as regards the Soviet Navy, the Soviet Government are currently engaged in major combatant and submarine construction programmes in all major categories of naval vessels. The only sectors showing any sign of long-term reduction are those concerning missile patrol boats, minor combatant and auxiliary vessels.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while it would be a crass absurdity to make any dramatic reduction in our defence budget, at the same time changes are occurring in central Europe? Does the Minister further agree that there may be grave changes both in NATO and the Warsaw Pact so that not only do we need to spend money on defence, but we need to see that our defences are strategically placed in the right places, combined with the right ideals, in order to meet any strategic difference that occurs? It is vital that the defence budget is used strategically for the defence of these islands.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the defence budget and expenditure is always used with strategy and care particularly in the long-term costing operations. I point out to the noble Lord that it is the strength and cohesion of the alliance, together with a willingness for dialogue, which has helped to bring about the present much improved international situation.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that many of us will agree with him that there are great dangers and instability in the present and future state of Europe and that it is as well not to be euphoric about what is happening? Will he further agree that if Her Majesty's Government were to be almost the only Government in the West which did not look forward in any sense to a peace dividend, that could well inhibit us from playing the part that we ought to play, through economic aid and other means, towards achieving a new balance and stability in Europe?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have to make the same remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. We must not undermine the prospects for a CFE accord by making unilateral reductions in our force levels. The British Government will not be stampeded into hasty reductions which we would later regret. We must always ensure that our security is never jeopardised.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, would the noble Earl therefore agree that, in the view of the British Government, the behaviour of President Bush and President Gorbachev is unwise, foolish and dangerous?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the decisions, thoughts and procedures taking place between those two superpowers are well known to your Lordships' House. Allies were consulted and they have agreed.

Lord Taylor of Hadfield

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a time when we should remember that in 1932, had we listened to Winston Churchill, the horrors of World War II would have been avoided and we would not have had the murder and slaughter which resulted? Surely, this is the time when that should be taken into account and considered and we should keep ourselves reasonably well armed.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I believe that your Lordships would do well to pay heed to the remarks of my noble friend.