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House of Commons

Tuesday 10 January 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


USSR (Military Reductions)

1. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposed military reductions.

3. Mr. Morgan : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposed military reductions.

4. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's defence strategy of President Gorbachev's proposed reductions in Soviet forces stationed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

8. Mrs. Beckett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for United Kingdom defence policy of President Gorbachev's proposals to reduce the numbers of tanks, combat aircraft and artillery systems.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archibald Hamilton) : The British Government and their NATO allies have welcomed the reductions in Soviet forces announced by Mr. Gorbachev on 7 December. If implemented, these will be a significant step towards the elimination of the Warsaw pact's large numerical superiorities in conventional forces in Europe. Even after such reductions, however, Warsaw pact conventional forces would outnumber NATO in Europe by approximately 2.5 : 1 in tanks and artillery. It will still be necessary, therefore, for NATO to pursue its existing policy of maintaining adequate forces to deter aggression while seeking improved international relations through arms control and other measures.

Mr. Bennett : Is that not a complacent and disappointing answer to the question? Does the Minister accept that the proposals are very significant, that they will save the Soviet Union a considerable amount of money, that they will enable it to get rid of obsolete equipment and that they will also be a significant step towards reducing armaments? Can the Government match that with some similar gesture? Is it not time that we got rid of Trident, which is extremely expensive and clearly will not work, as

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we do not have an independent communications system? Would that not be a significant gesture in the same direction?

Mr. Hamilton : The difficulty that we face is the appalling imbalances between the Warsaw pact countries and our own, so there is nothing to be said for balancing this. We want to see continued asymmetrical cuts bearing heavily on the Warsaw pact side. However, we very much welcome this as a good first step.

Mr. Morgan : Is the Minister telling us that, until the reduction in the Soviet Union and Warsaw pact forces passes the level of the NATO forces on the way down, NATO, and the British Government in particular, will not change their defence policy or try to participate in the process of build- down that the Soviet Union now appears to want to initiate? Does he agree that, by the time President Gorbachev arrives on the re-arranged visit to this country, the Government will have prepared no new United Kingdom defence policy in answer to what appears to be a completely altered threat from an offensive strategy by the Soviet Union to a defensive strategy? Surely the Government must have some response to that.

Mr. Hamilton : It is much too early to say that the whole Soviet threat has altered. We are seeing a reduction, or proposed reduction, in the numbers of troops, but the military capability of the Warsaw pact, in terms of its equipment, is improving.

Mrs. Beckett : Does the Minister accept that the Soviet Union's package of proposals means that NATO should consider revising its strategy? Should not decisions such as those to base more nuclear-capable United States aircraft in this country be delayed until the full impact of the proposals has been taken into account?

Mr. Hamilton : No. What we next want to see is progress being made on the conventional stability talks, which will reduce numbers on both sides. There are proposals to reach lower levels, and we are proposing that the number of tanks held by both sides should be 40, 000.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that, even after the proposed reductions, the Soviet Union's massive superiority in numbers should give us cause for concern? Does he also agree that the demonstration given by the Mig at Farnborough last year shows clearly how the Soviet Union has caught up with the West in technology and ability and that this should also give us cause for concern, because, at one time, we thought that we had superiority in quality?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is right. Both Flanker and Fulcrum are sophisticated aircraft that have given the Soviet Union a great technological leap forward ; we certainly cannot be complacent about the technical capability of the Soviet forces.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : Is my hon. Friend aware that there is strong support for the views of the Government and their attitude and reactions to the Soviet initiative, but that there is still a great deal of work to be done on verification, and that the best way of dealing with these matters is through the conventional stability talks rather than through unilateral NATO reductions?

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Mr. Hamilton : Yes, that absolutely must be true. It is important that the Soviet Union takes up a defensive posture over this rather than an aggressive one.

Mr. Brazier : Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the reductions are welcome, they do not in any way affect the modernisation programme of sea and air-launched cruise missiles that the Soviet Union is carrying out, and that for many years the Soviet Union had a policy of keeping its older tanks as new ones come in and that the equivalent British tanks which correspond to those being scrapped on the other side left service many years ago?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, that is absolutely right. Modern Soviet tanks virtually outnumber all tanks held by NATO forces.

Ms. Ruddock : Is it not a fact that Mr. Gorbachev has made it clear that there is real expectation in the Soviet Union that the unilateral cuts will take account of that notion and that there will be new tanks among those that are to be reduced?

Mr. Hamilton : I should be surprised if we saw substantial cuts in the number of new tanks held by the Soviet Union. I remind the hon. Lady that it was Mr. Krushchev who said that he would reduce troops by 1.25 million, and that those reductions never took place.

Mr. Ian Taylor : Does my hon. Friend agree that many eastern European countries go some way towards welcoming Mr. Gorbachev's announcement of these withdrawals, but would welcome even further withdrawals from their territory? Can he keep pressure on the Soviet Union to continue talks about the future of the balance between the Warsaw pact and NATO at the conventional stability talks in Vienna?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, we shall maintain all pressure. Several eastern European countries are grateful to see Soviet divisions withdraw, but there are no proposals to withdraw the large numbers of divisions from East Germany.

Mr. O'Neill : The Minister said that the number of Soviet tanks which will be withdrawn are predominantly aged. Will he concede that the bulk of the tanks which are at present located in the German Democratic Republic have of necessity to be among the most modern? Given that a large proportion of the tanks which President Gorbachev has said are being withdrawn will be withdrawn from East Germany, surely it would be inappropriate for us further to enhance the instability of the position by going ahead and modernising our tactical weapons at a time when the threat that those weapons are supposed to be meeting will be considerably reduced?

Mr. Hamilton : No. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, in practice the Soviet Union is modernising all its weapons systems, so it is important that we maintain the quality of our weapon systems even if we have fewer of them.

BAOR (Tanks and Helicopters)

2. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his policy as to the correct balance of tanks and helicopters for the operational effectiveness of the British Army of the Rhine.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) rose--

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Mr. Neubert : Recent operational analysis has con-firmed that both the tank and the helicopter have an essential role on the modern and future battlefield. We shall continue to invest substantially in both, but it is not the policy of this or previous Administrations to provide details of future levels of investment.

Mr. Greenway : I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and am delighted to hear him for the first time in the House after his rather long period of enforced silence. May I tell him that the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before Christmas about the Challenger 2 tank has been widely welcomed throughout Yorkshire? Can he tell the House what role the Royal Air Force plays in support helicopters for the British Army of the Rhine? In achieving the right balance of tanks and helicopters, does he accept that, so far as possible, we must ensure that whatever equipment is purchased is the best available and is manufactured in Britain? Does he further accept that there should be no reason why those two points are incompatible?

Mr. Neubert : I am indebted to my hon. Friend for the kindness of his opening remarks. It will be refreshing to give voice in this Chamber more frequently in future. He is right about our decision to commission at the demonstration phase the Challenger 2 tank which has met with a wide welcome in the House and in the world outside, but not in the Kremlin. My hon. Friend asked about command and control of support helicopters. Following a separate study of that question, changes have been implemented that we believe will constitute the best arrangements for guaranteeing support helicopters for land battle, and for providing the necessary confidence to Army commanders that support helicopter assets will be made available and deployed in accordance with their priorities.

Mr. Dalyell : While we are on the subject of helicopters, are the Government egging on, or pulling at the shirt tails, of Sir John Cuckney in his bid for GEC?

Mr. Neubert : That matter may arise later, if right hon. and hon. Members are lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.

Sir Jim Spicer : My hon. Friend may like notice of this question ; if so, he will let me know. Do the Federal Republic of Germany's defence forces, and those of the United States, have a much higher ratio of helicopters to tanks than we do? If so, is there a lesson for us to learn from that?

Mr. Neubert : It is not our practice, nor has it been the practice of previous Administrations, to indicate the precise balances of weapons and, in particular, to disclose the numbers of operational aircraft. It is clear that tanks and helicopters are both necessary. Certainly the Soviet Union thinks that tanks are needed, as do the Dutch and the Germans.

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Supplies (Monopolies)

5. Mr. Thorne : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will take steps to ensure that after 1992 there will not be a monopoly supply situation in any branches of the defence supply industry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The Ministry is committed to procurement by competitive tender, wherever practicable. We will continue monitoring changes to the supplier base and assess their implications for defence on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Thorne : When my hon. Friend's advice is sought over any bid for defence contractors in this country, and for the Plessey company in particular, please will he bear in mind the partners who may be involved in such a bid--especially in view of the fact that they may have nothing to contribute from a defence point of view

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman's own question is about what will happen after 1992.

Mr. Thorne : Following 1992, will we be careful to ensure that we do not make deals with people within the Community that will not be to the benefit of our defence interests, particularly when those concerned have little or no defence expertise of their own? That would mean sharing our secrets now, which might adversely affect our ability to obtain future contracts.

Mr. Sainsbury : I know that my hon. Friend takes, understandably, a close interest in the defence activities of many of his constituents. I assure him that we shall look carefully at each bid that might arise after 1992, or before, to take account of all the relevant factors, including the ownership of any companies that may be involved in any such bid.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Can the Minister give the House an indication of his Ministry's strategy for ensuring that its procurement programme is not in any sense disrupted or adversely affected by the takeover of companies either now or after 1992?

Mr. Sainsbury : I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that we attach the greatest importance to maintaining competition among our suppliers, because we believe that that is the best possible way of promoting efficiency and therefore giving us value for money. We consider any circumstances that may arise, including bids of the kind to which the hon. and learned Gentleman refers, in the light of that strategy.

Mr. Burns : Important though events after 1992 are, will my hon. Friend bear in mind events prior to 1992? Does he agree that, important though it is to have a non-monopoly, it is equally vital that Britain's largest defence contractor, GEC-Marconi, is not allowed to become partly owned by a foreign state-owned company? Does he accept that many people in my constituency and elsewhere believe that, if that situation were to arise, it would be the height of folly?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that it would not be proper or helpful for me to speculate on possible bids which have not yet been made and the nature of which we do not know.

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Mr. Douglas : Given that the Minister is looking ahead to 1992, will he enlighten the House with his definition of "monopoly"? I accept the confidentiality of this, but what advice has he been given by the Civil Service about the blocking of bids which might result in large defence contractors which are now under threat being taken over or substantially controlled by foreign creditors?

Mr. Sainsbury : I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that only one definition of "monopoly" stands up : when there is only one supplier. That is the one that we intend to stick to.

Mr. Cormack : Does my hon. Friend agree that, both before and after 1992, there is a great deal to be said for big, Great British companies remaining British?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we can take considerable pride in the competence of British defence contractors. I am sure that we can also agree that we can look forward to continuing to have a flourishing and successful British defence industry.

Mr. Rogers : In 1986, the Government told the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that they were against a GEC-Plessey merger on the grounds, first, that that would reduce competition in defence procurement, and secondly, that it would mean a financial loss to the MOD of between £600 million and £900 million. May we assume that the Government, who pride themselves on being consistent, still hold the views that they propounded in 1986?

Mr. Sainsbury : As I think is already known, the Office of Fair Trading has asked all interested parties, including the MOD, for advice on the bid for Plessey, and we have provided that advice in confidence in the normal way

Mr. O'Neill : Have the circumstances changed since 1986?

Mr. Sainsbury : As I have just said, we have provided that advice in confidence in the normal way. Sir Gordon Borrie will make a recommendation to my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether the bid should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. If there were a referral, we would expect to be asked for our views by the commission, and in due course it would publish a report which would contain our views.

Mr. Nelson : Does my hon. Friend agree that conditions have changed significantly since the original bid was made? Moreover, when considering, as the question does, the situation after 1992, does he agree that the defence procurement needs of this country will be far better served by companies on a European basis that have the collaborative research strength and base to compete with some of the biggest defence contractors internationally? I very much hope that, for those reasons, my right hon. and hon. Friends will not make representations to the DTI which will prevent the shareholders of GEC and of Plessey from being able to decide for themselves how best to dispose of their assets.

Mr. Sainsbury : I assure my hon. Friend that the important and relevant factors to which he refers will be fully taken into account in any observations that we make about bids that are made, as opposed to bids that might possibly be made.

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AOR Programme

6. Mr. Nicholas Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the AOR programme.

Mr. Sainsbury : There are currently two auxiliary oiler replenishment vessels on order. These vessels, with their ability to replenish both solid stores and fuel, represent a new capability for the Navy. We expect to order further vessels, but no decisions have yet been made on the size and timing of such orders.

Mr. Brown : When does the Minister expect AOR1 to be in service with the Royal Navy? In the meantime, will he confirm that Swan Hunter will be asked to bid for the work on HMS Southampton?

Mr. Sainsbury : On the first part of the question, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware we do not give precise in-service dates for new ships. As he will appreciate, AOR1 is at a relatively early stage of construction, as is AOR2, and it will be two or more years before we expect it to be in service.

HMS Southampton is at her base port, and no decision has yet been made about the best way to re-provide the operational capability that she represents. An investment appraisal is being prepared and will receive urgent consideration.

Rev. Martin Smyth : Will the Minister confirm that AOR1 is proceeding at Harland and Wolff with the ability that it has displayed in the past and that any delays that may occur are not necessarily the responsibility of the main contractor, because some of the larger sub- contractors may not be delivering according to the time specifications?

Mr. Sainsbury : I can confirm that the construction of AOR1 is proceeding. I have been to Harland and Wolff myself to see the work in progress. It would not be helpful for me to speculate about any arguments or disputes that might take place between principal contractors and sub- contractors on any delays or difficulties that have arisen.

Tank Recovery Vehicles

7. Mr. Cousins : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future programme of orders for tank recovery vehicles.

Mr. Sainsbury : Subject to detailed contract negotiations, we intend to place an order with Vickers Defence Systems Ltd. for the supply of a further 47 Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicles in the near future.

Mr. Cousins : Will the Minister accept that, on the Scotswood road in Newcastle, where the six prototype tanks of a heavier type to support the Challenger 2 tank fleet are being built as a result of competitive tender, his statement will be widely welcomed?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments and I appreciate that the order for a further 47 important armoured recovery and repair vehicles clearly will represent a considerable amount of useful work for Vickers Defence Systems Ltd.

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Mr. Marlow : Could I ask my hon. Friend yet again to look five to 15 years into the future and to look at the potential survivability of the tank and the recovery vehicle? When he comes to the conclusion that many other people have come to--that there is no survivability at all--will he save the money and spend it instead on helicopters?

Mr. Sainsbury : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in bringing in his argument about the relative values of tanks and helicopters on the battlefield. I assure him that the Ministry of Defence always looks five and 15 years ahead in determining its requirements. It seems that others, such as the Warsaw pact countries, still attach great value to tanks and believe they have a considerable survivability, even on the modern battlefield, because they commit large resources to continuing to produce highly capable tanks.

Mr. Tony Banks : What is wrong with our tanks, then, that they require so many recovery vehicles?

Mr. Sainsbury : The hon. Gentleman may be familiar with the fact that, if there were a conflict on the central front--we all hope and pray that there will not--there is a likelihood that some tanks would be hit and would need to be recovered.

Mr. Banks : Send the AA.

Mr. Conway : Despite the criticism of my hon. Friend by the Opposition, may I assure him that the order for 47 vehicles is very much welcomed in Shrewsbury, where the engines are made? Can he tell the House whether this generous order--which will bring much-needed work to my constituency--could have been placed if the Government had taken the Opposition's advice and cut conventional defence expenditure?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right in identifying the point that such an order not only provides work in the location of the principal and main contractors but for a large number of sub-contractors. He is also right to say that we continually hear Opposition criticism of new orders being placed and suggestions that the equipment is not necessary. If their policies were put into effect, the implications for those employed in the British defence industry would be serious.

Tactical Air-to-Surface Missiles

9. Mr. Doran : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with the United States Secretary of State for Defence on the development and deployment of the tactical air-to-surface missile.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : We are continuing to study a number of options for the replacement of the United Kingdom's free-fall nuclear bomb. A collaborative approach to the development of a successor system remains highly attractive. In this context, we are keeping in very close touch with the United States Government.

Mr. Doran : The Government announced earlier that they were interested in the tactical air-to-surface missile. Will the Minister confirm that they are also interested in the nuclear tactical air-to- surface missile which is being developed by the United States Government? Can he also

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confirm that if the missile is developed, it falls within the same category as the cruise missiles, which appear to be being abolished under the INF agreement?

Mr. Hamilton : The answer to the second part of the question is no. The system will be shorter range than anything that comes under the INF agreement. We are interested in this development, but the warhead would be developed by this country.

Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important to provide a stand-off capability for the Tornado aircraft as soon as possible, because its ability to bomb with conventional or, indeed, nuclear free-fall bombs is being degraded progressively by the increased effectiveness of Russian defences?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not think that the free-fall bomb will be effective after the end of the century, and we must look for a successor if we are to maintain our policy of flexible response.

Mr. Cartwright : Has the Minister seen recent press reports suggesting that Britain is likely to replace the WE177--a free-fall nuclear bomb--with the United States SRAM T system? Can he say whether there is any truth in those statements, and whether discussions are still continuing about the possibility of an Anglo-French tactical air-to-surface missile?

Mr. Hamilton : We are very interested in the successor to the ASMP French missile rather than the existing one, which will, I think, be getting very old by the time we are talking about bringing the new missile into service. As for our discussions with the Americans, we are looking at two United States systems, one of which is the SRAM-T--the short-range attack missile. I do not know what the "T" stands for. We are also looking at the SLAT--supersonic low-altitude target--drone. No decision has yet been made, however.

Mr. Thurnham : When my hon. Friend meets the United States Secretary of State for Defence will he remind him how necessary it is for American forces to be stationed in Europe, despite the remarks of the West German Admiral Schma"ling at the weekend?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, indeed. We are constantly reminding our friends in the United States how essential it is that they remain in Europe, and hoping that there will be no withdrawals by United States frontline troops until agreement has been reached under the conventional stability talks.

Mr. Cohen : Although the nuclear-capable TASM--the tactical air-to- surface missile--is classified as a shorter-range bomb, when the bombs are flown from aircraft can they not be lobbed into the range where the INF agreement applies? In that case, would not the forces be cheating on the agreement?

Mr. Hamilton : It is not our intention to breach the INF agreement with the replacement of the free-fall bomb.

Independent Nuclear Deterrent

10. Mr. Summerson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence at what point in the arms control process the Government will be willing to discuss a reduction in the United Kingdom strategic independent nuclear deterrent.

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Mr. Archie Hamilton : Our policy remains as set out in paragraph 222 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1988", to the effect that if Soviet and United States strategic arsenals were to be very substantially reduced, and if no significant improvements had occurred in Soviet defence capabilities, we would want to consider how we could best contribute to arms control in the light of the reduced threat.

Mr. Summerson : Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that Mr. Gorbachev has been in power for only about four years, and the Communist system remains in its entirety? Will the Government bear that fact in mind when considering future changes in nuclear weapons, so that the future defence of this country may be upheld?

Mr. Hamilton : It is true that the offensive capability of the Soviet Union remains, and we must have a deterrent to stop any Soviet attack in the future.

Mr. Cryer : Is the United Kingdom not obliged, under clause 6 of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty--which we honour and to which we conform--to get rid of our nuclear weapons? Is it not a breach of that treaty and a discouragement of the 135 non-nuclear nations that signed the treaty to deploy nuclear weapons as we do?

Mr. Hamilton : The United Kingdom is not covered by the non- proliferation treaty.

Mr. John Greenway : Is it not a fact that Mr. Gorbachev has recognised that the United Kingdom nuclear deterrent is not to be included in the nuclear arms control talks at present?

Mr. Hamilton : That is true, but what we are supporting is the strategic arms reduction talks, which propose a 50 per cent. reduction on both sides. There is no question of our deterrent being included in those talks.

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