§ 3.2 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ When they expect to announce the successor to the present generation of tanks used in the British Army.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, that is the answer that has been given for some time. Did the Minister see the report in The Times business supplement at the weekend which indicated that the final bids for the successor tank were to be in by Thursday last? Therefore should the answer not be forthcoming quickly? In its evaluation of the tank, will the Government place high among their priorities continuity of supply from our own people, bearing in mind the disappointment that was felt with the Belgian reaction when we tried to buy ammunition to supply our troops in the Gulf war? Is it not safer to have our own supplier rather than a foreign supplier when governments and policies can change overnight?
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, is it a fact that the Government gave a grant to Vickers in 1988 to develop a new version of the Challenger on the understanding that a decision as to whether orders would be placed would be taken in September last? If Vickers continues to maintain its large and expensive development group, is there not a reasonable case for giving the company another modest grant until the decision is made?
§ Lord Glenarthur
My Lords, while accepting that the British tank industry must compete in terms of both performance and cost, perhaps I may ask this 1343 question. Does my noble friend agree that the history of tank building in this country has been second to none? Does he also agree that in terms of performance what we have seen recently in the Gulf war has demonstrated clearly that when properly maintained and resupplied, British tanks can out-perform many others?
§ Lord Dormand of Easington
My Lords, in considering this matter, is there not the strongest possible case for the Vickers Challenger II for at least two reasons in addition to what has already been said? First, Challenger II proved itself without qualification in the Gulf war. Secondly, the expertise, the continuity and the dedication of the Tyneside workforce will guarantee the continued superb performance of Challenger II.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, to what extent has the concept of the tank become out-dated by the anti-tank weaponry which was demonstrated so well in the Gulf war?
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, can the Minister help us just a little more? Does he not agree that it is high time that a decision was made on this battle tank? Can he tell us how long "not too long" is likely to be? Thirdly, does he not agree that there is, or ought to be, a presumption that in a sphere of equipment for the British Army as fundamental as the new battle tank, a British contender should be chosen unless there are very strong reasons to the contrary?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that many agree with him that time must be taken to absorb recent lessons carefully? Does he also agree that, not least, it is very unwise for those who specify the armaments required to assume that they know in what climate or terrain those armaments will next be required to operate?
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, I am sorry to ask the Minister a second question, but he did not answer the second point that I put to him. Does he agree that there is, or ought to be, a presumption that in a matter 1344 as fundamental as a new battle tank for the British Army, unless there are very strong reasons to the contrary, it should be British?
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, is the Minister not aware that if the order for the tank is not given to the British company and the British workforce, tank production in this country may cease for all time? Is that not an appalling risk to take for 'the future?