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House of Commons

Tuesday 29 November 1988

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


City of London (Spitalfields Market) Bill

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill


London Local Authorities Bill


Orders read for consideration of motions.

To be considered on Thursday at Seven o'clock.

Oral Answers to Questions



1. Mr. Colin Shepherd : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he now expects the first Trident missile submarine to enter service with the Royal Navy.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in this House on 20 October, we do not expect that there will be any slippage in the planned in -service date of Trident, which continues to be the mid-1990s.

Mr. Shepherd : Will my right hon. Friend accept from a former submariner that it is essential that the time scale is met, because old submarines not only become obsolete but wear out? Does my right hon. Friend agree that despite the encouraging changes on the other side of the Iron Curtain, any reduction in the perceived effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent will only hinder, not help those changes?

Mr. Younger : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is essential that as long as we must have the deterrent force it should be kept up to date. In view of the enormous developments taking place and the counter measures available to the Soviet Union, it is essential that the programme continues on time.

Mr. John Evans : Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the escalating cost of the Trident programme is seriously distorting his defence budget and making it increasingly difficult for him to fulfil our commitment to NATO conventional forces, especially the Royal Navy's surface fleet?

Mr. Younger : I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. First, the cost of Trident is not escalating, but de-escalating. In the last year's repricing there were real

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reductions of £376 million and a foreign exchange rate reduction of £258 million. That has meant a real reduction of nearly £2 billion since the programme was first announced. The hon. Gentleman's question does not have any teeth.

Sir Antony Buck : Does my right hon. Friend agree that what he has said shows that Trident is a good bargain for this country? Does he also agree that it is good that the fact that it is coming into operation is being discussed on the Floor of the House and that we are updating our nuclear deterrent openly? The Labour Government updated our nuclear deterrent by introducing Chevaline and not telling the House about it.

Mr. Younger : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The cost of the Trident programme works out over its life at about 3 per cent. of the total defence budget. In no other way could such a sum of money, spent on some other means, produce security the like of which the Trident programme will give us.

On the question of neglect of the conventional forces, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) knows, the Government's spending on conventional defences is £21 billion greater than it would have been if the previous Government's programme had continued.

Mr. Boyes : What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the implications for the United Kingdom Trident fleet of the verification arrangements of the United States and Soviet Union START agreement, considering that when Trident missiles are deployed with the British fleet the Soviet Union may wish to inspect British submarine facilities at Rosyth and Faslane? Will the Secretary of State allow that to happen, or is he prepared to sabotage the START agreement?

Mr. Younger : First, everyone on both sides--including Mr. Gorbachev --has made it clear that the British Trident system is not part of the START negotiations. Secondly, we have had clear assurances that any negotiations on START will affect neither the Trident programme itself nor any future testing thereof.

Merchant Ships

2. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of the number of merchant ships available to him in an emergency.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : The number of vessels available on the United Kingdom and dependent territory registers at 30 September 1988 in the categories required for defence purposes was as follows :



Large stern trawlers                             |15           

Other fishing vessels & offshore support vessels |333          

Product tankers                                  |126          

Break bulk general cargo vessels                 |163          

Large passenger liners                           |5            

Roll on-roll off ferries                         |73           

Tugs                                             |91           

Mr. McFall : Is the Minister aware that there is great concern about merchant shipping? Is he further aware that

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both the Defence and the Transport Select Committee have commented on the matter and that the Government have agreed with their analysis of vessel shortfall, the availability of categories of ships and the genuine availability of ships, whether through ownership, through routes or through crew availability?

Two questions arise--

Mr. Speaker : Order. One question.

Mr. McFall : Yes, one question in two parts. Which categories of ships still cause the Government concern in regard to requisitioning and genuine availability, and during which period of time will those ships be available?

Mr. Hamilton : The statistics that I have quoted are for readily available ships. It is assumed that they are either in British ports or nearby and can be requisitioned in a short time. We are concerned about large stern trawlers and have felt compelled to consider other types of vessels as auxiliary mine sweepers. The overall evidence is that the position has stabilised, and we do not expect it to become any worse.

Sir David Price : Does my hon. Friend agree that the question would be better phrased to embrace the whole of NATO availability of merchant ships? Is he aware that many of us are concerned that the problem mentioned by the hon. Friend for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) about the United Kingdom Merchant Navy applies to the whole of the NATO contribution to the merchant shipping section of the Alliance?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is right. We are concerned about what should be happening in NATO. Through a United Kingdom initiative, NATO has embarked on a study of both supply and demand, which we hope will enable us to assess the requirement accurately.

Mr. Loyden : Does the Minister recognise the valuable work done by the Merchant Navy in two world wars? Have the Government not responded disgracefully to seamen in the 1980s by running down the British fleet and allowing flagging out so that the ships are foreign run? What sort of justice is that for British seamen? When will the Government recognise that the merchant fleet is an important aspect of life in this country, both in peace and in war?

Mr. Hamilton : The Government fully recognise the great contribution of merchant seamen both during the war and after. However, we are dealing with shipping in the market place. If British ships with British crews cannot compete, they will have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Aitken : Is my hon. Friend not in some danger of being a little complacent in his answers, and not only in regard to the NATO sealift shortage of 150 ships? Does he recall that in 1939, prior to the last war, there were some 3,000 deep sea vessels, 2,600 of which were sunk during the hostilities? There are currently 600 deep sea vessels which, in terms of today's conventional weapons, would be unlikely to last more than a few weeks. Is there not a real need to think more widely and deeply about shortages that could arise in an emergency?

Mr. Hamilton : The Government are by no means complacent. We are at present negotiating agreements with major flag-of-convenience states to minimise any

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legal difficulties that might be experienced with the 200 vessels on their registers. We have developed machinery that can be activated at short notice to charter ships on the market. We have negotiated comprehensive arrangements for access to ships owned by our NATO allies.

NATO (Missile Flight Ban)

4. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has discussed with any of his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation colleagues the possibility of a missile flight ban.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : The United States continues to keep its allies fully informed about its bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union in a possible START agreement. There has been no proposal for a missile flight test ban.

Mr. Davies : Does the Minister accept that the Government are being inconsistent in not pressing for a ban? Surely any improvement in ballistic missile technology will be an advantage to the side that strikes first, which is completely incompatible with the Government's overall view on strategy.

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman is well aware that Trident is a new system, and it is essential that it is tested to ensure that it operates properly. Unless we had that confidence, it would not be a deterrent.

Mr. Brazier : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the need for nuclear weapons, which includes the need for tested missiles to carry them, will remain as long as there is an overwhelming conventional advantage for the other side?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, that is right. It is important that we should be able to continue to test our systems and to ensure that they work properly.

Low-flying Aircraft

5. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received regarding the problem of low flying of Royal Air Force jets in the south-west of England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman) : The Ministry of Defence received 568 inquiriesor complaints about low-flying jet aircraft from the south-west of England between 1 January and 31 October 1988.

Mr. Taylor : I am sure the Minister will agree that that is not an inconsiderable number and that low-level flying can cause considerable distress and inconvenience, especially to the farming community. Will he reassure the House that the Government are aware of that and are trying to keep flights to the minimum? May we also have an assurance that there are adequate safety arrangements for personnel and the local community?

Mr. Freeman : I agree that low-flying training is inconvenient. We try to spread the burden as widely as possible throughout the United Kingdom. We have a good working relationship with the National Farmers Union to cover claims from the farming community, and they are paid promptly. The farming community, like any other

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members of the public, should not be unduly worried about safety. The safety record of the Royal Air Force has improved consistently during the past 20 years.

Mr. Robert Hicks : Does my hon. Friend accept that the majority of people living in the south-west accept that this kind of training is essential for our pilots? However, does he agree that people who may have complaints about inconvenience are those living in distinctive geographical areas, such as the Tamar valley, where it appears that the incidents of low -level flying are greater than elsewhere?

Mr. Freeman : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the principle of low flying. I assure him that in his constituency--in the Tamar valley--he should see no more than his fair share of low-flying aircraft.

Royal Ordnance

6. Mr. Graham : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the implications for the supply of defence materials of (a) the current and (b) planned regional distribution of production of defence materials by former Royal Ordnance plants ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Younger : We have assured the supply of appropriate defence materials by the five year agreement for the supply of ammunition that we concluded with Royal Ordnance in July of this year and by a number of other extant contracts. Royal Ordnance acknowledges that it remains committed to supply us in accordance with those arrangements. With that commitment, it would not be appropriate for the Government to seek to restrict the company in its search for greater efficiency and competitiveness, which are matters for the commercial judgment of the company.

Mr. Graham : As the Secretary of State is aware, British Aerospace intends to phase out and close Bishopton Royal Ordnance factory, with the loss of 1,100 jobs. We understand that it intends to transfer the work to Chile, Kentucky and other parts of America. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Bishopton Royal Ordnance factory is a major propellant producing factory in Britain? If we allow that firm to transfer its work abroad, in the event of a crisis Britain would not properly be able to defend itself because of the time scale in bringing back arms to this country.

Mr. Younger : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern. That it appears that this particular facility is to be closed by Royal Ordnance is a serious and difficult matter. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about transferring production to other countries. As I understand it, no such decision has been taken. I urge the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to wait and see what plans British Aerospace produces. It has underlined that it will be as helpful as it can to existing employees.

Mr. Churchill : What obligations are there on Royal Ordnance to maintain a surge capability in the production of key categories of weaponry and munitions in the event of future hostilities?

Mr. Younger : I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend has made. As I have already said, the five-year agreement that we have concluded with Royal Ordnance obliges it to be able to supply us with what it has been

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contracted to supply in the next five years. That will give us plenty of time to decide what future contracts should be made, and with whom. An adequate supply of the necessary materials is available from a number of different sources.

Mr. Rogers : Will the Secretary of State make an urgent assessment of the implications of the possible non-production of defence equipment at former Royal Ordnance factories, especially in Leeds? If, as rumoured, the Government are to purchase the American-built main battle tank, does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that that will mean the loss of more than 20,000 jobs at Vickers and supplying companies, besides removing a main battle tank building capacity from this country? Why has the Cabinet delayed a decision on this important issue? Does it not know all the facts, or is the Secretary of State waiting to make an announcement on the day before the recess so that he will avoid political flack from Conservative Members who want his head?

Mr. Younger : The hon. Gentleman seems to assume one particular outcome. There have been rumours in all directions and I can confirm only that we are holding a competition--it is a good one--between the different types of tank. We have difficult choices to make. It is still my hope that we shall be able to make a decision before the end of the year. My colleagues and I will do our best to stick to that.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that this reorganisation of production should lead to lower unit costs, better value for the taxpayer and greater job and export opportunities?

Mr. Younger : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is in everyone's interest that our defence industry, whether Royal Ordnance or any other part of it, should be as competitive as possible. All the signs are that moves in recent years to make it more competitive have resulted in record overseas sales of defence equipment and have secured a large number of jobs.

British Aerospace (Explosives and Propellants)

7. Miss Lestor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with British Aerospace on collaborative production agreements with non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries in relation to explosives and propellants.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : None. The company has announced that it has signed joint-venture agreements with companies in the United States and Brazil, with a view to selling explosives and technology and thereby expanding its business in overseas markets.

Miss Lestor : I want to reconsider the hon. Gentleman's previous answer. If it is true that there is a five-year agreement with Royal Ordnance factories, presumably the equipment that it would no longer produce if its factories were closed would be bought from somewhere? As I understand it, the Minister has hinted that that equipment will come from Latin America and other countries. Bearing in mind that they are non-NATO countries, will he inform the House what guarantees he has that standards of manufacture, which have been an essential

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part of Royal Ordnance factory production, will be maintained? Presumably the jobs at those factories will be re- exported to non-NATO countries.

Mr. Sainsbury : I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the reply that my right hon. Friend, rather than myself, just gave, referring to the five-year agreement. Under that agreement Royal Ordnance has the responsibility to meet 80 per cent. of our requirement for certain specified explosives, propellants and related end products. It is, of course, for the company to organise its production facilities to meet that requirement as efficiently as possible. My right hon. Friend has already said that that is in the interests not only of MOD, but of the company.

I assure the hon. Lady that we have standard conditions of contract in those arrangements that will require the company to notify us of any intention to purchase more than £100,000 worth of goods from overseas. If any such request were received, we would look at it in the light of our strategic requirements, among other factors.

NATO (Short-Range Weaponry)

8. Mr. Menzies Campbell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning the proposed modernisation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's short-range nuclear weaponry.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : I have nothing to add to the communique issued after the nuclear planning group meeting in The Hague, Scheveningen, on 27- 28 October. A copy of the communique has been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Campbell : What weight does the Minister give to the views on this matter of our West German allies, who have an acute geographical interest in short-range nuclear weapons? Should we not delay modernisation until we are satisfied that it is necessary? Should we not press for a multilateral agreement, which will make modernisation unnecessary?

Mr. Hamilton : I do not accept the premise of that question. NATO is not divided on the fundamentals, that nuclear deterrents will be required for the foreseeable future and that nuclear forces must be effective and kept up to date. That was the position taken at the Scheveningen agreement.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my hon. Friend agree that the modernisation of all weapons systems has to go on continually because it takes so long to take a system from the initial plan as to how we should defend ourselves through to producing a weapons system? Any delay in that process is likely to put us so far behind that we shall never be able to keep up our deterrent systems.

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no point in having a nuclear deterrent if it becomes obsolete because it will deter no one.

Mr. Sean Hughes : A few weeks ago the Prime Minister declared in Washington that the cold war was over. Do the Government share the view expressed by the French Foreign Minister, that we should wait two or three years before modernisation to see what the Soviets decide to do?

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Mr. Hamilton : The Government certainly do not follow that view. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the French are not military members of NATO.

Mr. Wilkinson : Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the House that the Soviets are modernising their nuclear forces at theatre level, as well as at strategic level? Does he agree that it is vital for the Royal Air Force, which will have an important role in nuclear deterrence for many years, to be able not only to launch stand-off weapons but to have effective defence suppression systems, such as the ALARM missile? Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether progress has been made on ALARM?

Mr. Hamilton : The ALARM programme is progressing, although, as my hon. Friend knows, there have been difficulties with it. My hon. Friend is right about the Soviet Union, which takes the view that it should modernise its whole range of nuclear weapons. That is what we are doing as well. It is also worth bearing in mind that since 1979 about 35 per cent. of the nuclear warheads held by NATO in Europe have been unilaterally disbanded to reduce the number from 7,000 to 4,600.

Computer Systems

9. Mr. Darling : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to strengthen the security of sensitive defence computer systems.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : Yes. For security reasons I am not prepared to disclose details.

Mr. Darling : Can the Minister tell us whether British defence computer systems have been interfered with? Can Britain's defence computer system be infiltrated as happened in the United States when computer hackers spread a virus in the system and so compromised defence? The Minister sounds a little complacent, as if he is seeking to hide behind a shroud of secrecy. Will he answer my question and give the House the assurances it needs?

Mr. Hamilton : There is no question of the Government hiding behind a shroud of secrecy. The fact is that we have no evidence that our highly classified system has been tampered with or that anybody has obtained access to it. Low-classified information is different because such computer systems are open to large numbers of people.

European Fighter Aircraft

10. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on progress with the European fighter aircraft.

Mr. Sainsbury : The EFA main development contracts were signed on 23 November. That followed Spain's signature of the development memorandum of understanding earlier this month. These contracts will provide a very significant programme of work in the United Kingdom, particularly for British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, and also for the aerospace industry as a whole.

Mr. Stern : Does my hon. Friend agree that the announcement is good news, not only for the workers at Rolls-Royce in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Cope), but for the future of European co-operation on major defence

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projects? It is good news for everybody, yet the Opposition have been trying to put every obstacle and objection in the way since the project began.

Mr. Sainsbury : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I know that he has followed the project closely and supported it on behalf of his constituents. As he said, the signing of the MOU is a good step forward for European defence equipment collaboration and builds on the successful Tornado programme.

Mr. Douglas : Will the Minister give us some assurance about collaboration on radar and tell us what is happening in relation to competition for that? May we have some assurances that the radar contract will be given to a British company such as Ferranti, and its group, which is needed to keep us in the forefront of R and D and is essential for the future of radar in European and world terms?

Mr. Sainsbury : The hon. Gentleman is aware that there is a competitive selection process for the important radar contract. I suspect that he may also be aware that there are British companies in both the competing consortia. We are nearing the end of the competitive exercise and must now await the examination of the tenders before reaching a conclusion on which of those British companies will be successful.

Mr. Jack : On behalf of the aerospace workers in my constituency of Fylde, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the successful conclusion of the EFA negotiations? Will he say a little more about the employment prospects created by the project and confirm that the United Kingdom Government could not participate in that project without the success of the British economy to fund it?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I hope that his constituents are aware of the close interest that he takes and the support that he has given to this project, which gives considerable employment opportunities to his constituents who work for British Aerospace or for the numerous sub-contractors to the prime contractors, such as British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce.

Mr. O'Neill : Will the Minister accept the congratulations of both sides of the House on the completion of this stage of the EFA? We have consistently supported the programme and welcome the latest developments. However, I should like to pursue the Minister on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) about radar, because one of the radar systems, the Ferranti system, is British designed and British led, whereas although the one led by AEG has Marconi participation, it is basically an adaptation of an American system.

Will the Minister assure us that the newspaper reports that have appeared in Scotland are not true and that a decision will not be taken until the middle of this month? Will he further assure us that he will announce the decision to the House as quickly as possible after it has been made by the appropriate partners?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support for the project that he has expressed from the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that that will continue. This is an important project which is good for British industry and European collaboration. However, I must

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disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that I am not a regular reader of Scottish newspapers and regret that I have not seen the reports to which he referred. Therefore, I cannot add anything to what I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) about awaiting the outcome of the competitive tendering.


11. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assistance has been given by his Department to Jamaica as a consequence of the recent hurricane.

Mr. Younger : British forces were the first outsiders on the scene to give practical assistance to Jamaica in the aftermath of hurricane Gilbert which struck the island on 12 September. HMS Active arrived to give assistance on 15 September, and the crews of Active and RFA Oakleaf spent six days in Jamaica providing food, medical relief, reconnaissance, temporary repairs to a number of hospitals, and the reconstruction of power lines. A detachment of the Royal Engineers from Belize arrived on 16 September and spent nearly three weeks working on emergency repairs, water and electricity supplies to a hospital and on major repairs to several children's homes. In addition, the RAF flew in two consignments of relief equipment, including much needed tents and blankets, using C130 Hercules aircraft.

Mr. Taylor : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that extremely positive reply and for his prompt response to that terrible natural tragedy. Can he give us some idea of the cost of those provisions to the island of Jamaica?

Mr. Younger : I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said and I shall see that that is passed on to all the service men who took part in the operation. The cost of the MOD contribution to the Jamaica disaster relief operation is roughly £100,000, but the bill will be met by the Overseas Development Administration, not by the MOD.

Mrs. Mahon : Is the Minister prepared to give the same assistance to Nicaragua? Recently, we heard on the world service that there had been a major ecological--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Unfortunately, the question is about Jamaica.

Procurement Budget

12. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he proposes taking to ensure that a greater proportion of his Department's procurement budget is secured from Wales.

Mr. Sainsbury : It is our policy to place equipment orders, wherever practicable, by competitive tendering. In 1986-87, about £150 million was paid to companies with a billing address in Wales. The future level of spending in Wales will be primarily determined by the enterprise and competitiveness of Welsh industry.

Mrs. Mahon : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady's question was not very sophisticated.

Mr. Wigley : The Minister spoke a moment ago about the employment opportunities that had arisen from

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defence contracts in one of his hon. Friend's constituencies. Does he realise that over half of defence procurement expenditure is in the south-east of England, compared with only 2 per cent. in Wales, and that that amounts to a covert regional policy? If it were possible to have only a per capita expenditure level in Wales, it would be the equivalent of £300 million additional expenditure in the Welsh economy and about 20,000 to 30,000 additional jobs. Will his Department please take a more active stance to try to encourage some diversification of job opportunities?

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