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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Royal Assent

Mr. Speaker : I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified Her Royal Assent to the following Acts :

1. The Petroleum Royalties (Relief) and Continental Shelf Act 1989.

2. The Port of Tyne Act 1989.

3. The London Regional Transport Act 1989.


Hythe Marina Village (Southampton) Wavescreen Bill

(By Order) International Westminster Bank Bill-- (By Order)

Isle of Wight Bill-- (By Order)

London Underground Victoria Bill-- (By Order)

Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill-- (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 9 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


Nuclear Weapons

1. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what percentage of the defence budget has been devoted to nuclear weapons in each of the last five years.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : The estimated percentage share of the defence budget devoted to strategic nuclear weapons in each of the past five years is, in 1984-85 2.3 per cent., in 1985-86 2.8 per cent., in 1986-87 3.6 per cent., in 1987-88 4.7 per cent., in 1988-89 5.6 per cent.

Mr. Evans : As Britain's defence budget has been reduced over the past three years from what it was originally projected to be, and as the nuclear element will be substantially increased if the Prime Minister's obsession with modernising tactical nuclear weapons is successful, will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that he will protect and defend the conventional weapons element of his budget in the future?

Mr. Younger : Yes, I can give that categorical assurance. The matter should be seen in perspective. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that this year's defence budget, excluding nuclear strategic forces, is £

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billion higher in real terms than the whole of the 1978-79 defence budget, even including the Polaris programme. An enormously greater amount is being spent on conventional forces than there ever was before 1979.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in welcoming Mr. Gorbachev's efforts to reduce the Soviet Union's defence capacity, but when thinking of this country's future need for nuclear defence will he bear strongly in mind the fact that some smaller countries will have a nuclear capability--especially Israel and South Africa, both of which probably have that capacity already--and others such as Libya will, unfortunately, probably develop it? Does he agree that whatever happens between the two superpowers it is unlikely that this country will be able to do without an element of nuclear deterrence in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Younger : I certainly share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the improvements in the Soviet position and the reductions in Soviet weapon systems that have been announced. We shall be watching carefully to be sure that they actually happen. I also agree that, while seeking further reductions by every means that we can, it is still essential to keep up our strength in nuclear and conventional forces until the Soviet forces decrease to roughly the same level as our own.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : In relation to the production of weapons- grade plutonium, will the Secretary of State make it clear that the decision by British Nuclear Fuels last week to announce a feasibility study into the construction of an advanced gas-cooled reactor or pressurised water reactor at Sellafield is in no way dependent on a contribution from the Ministry of Defence, that the only contracts that would go to BNFL for weapons-grade plutonium would be extending existing contracts from the facility already in place and that it is a misrepresentation by journalists to say that the plant will be built to fulfil Britain's nuclear weapons requirements?

Mr. Younger : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the announcement by BNFL last week has nothing to do with me. He will have to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy as the announcement has no connection with the defence programme as such.

Soviet Union (Parliamentarians' Visits)

2. Mr. Moss : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his policy on briefing hon. and right hon. Members undertaking visits to the Soviet Union.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence would be happy to consider any request for briefing from hon. or right hon. Members undertaking visits to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Moss : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour party's recent delegation to Moscow, in search of its defence policy and to audition for a part in the nuclear disarmament show, came back with a script that my hon. Friend's Department could have written in advance--that the Russians totally reject the Labour party's unilateralist approach and much prefer the Government's multilateralist approach?

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Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. General Vladimir Lobov was reported as saying that although unilateralism is an imaginative gesture it is neither realistic nor a serious option for a major power. If that team of hon. Members had come for a briefing at the Ministry of Defence we could have given them the information and saved them the cost of the journey.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Minister agree that one important issue that could be raised by those visiting the Soviet Union is chemical weapons? Does he agree that although it is right to give a cautious welcome to Mr. Schevardnadze's announcement at the beginning of January we should urge the Soviet Union to provide a full and frank disclosure of its chemical weapons capability? Does he further agree that we should urge the Soviet Union to allow our experts the same kind of access that Soviet experts were recently afforded at Porton Down?

Mr. Hamilton : The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. Access and verification are the keys to the whole business of controlling chemical weapons in the future. In that statement from Mr. Schevardnadze the Soviet Union admitted to having 50,000 tonnes of chemical agents--the first time that the Soviet Union had ever admitted to having any chemical capability--and even that figure differed greatly from our estimates of the tonnage of chemical weapons held by the Soviet Union.

Mr. Ian Taylor : Is my hon. Friend aware that as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs I visited Moscow in November and met the same people as the Labour delegation met? That delegation will probably have returned in total confusion because it is clear that there is a high regard in Moscow for the consistent defence policy followed by the British Government? It is also clear that the Soviet Union has started its own reductions in the face of our steadfastness in the past.

Mr. Hamilton : That is absolutely correct. My hon. Friend is right that the Soviet Union respects people who negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Mr. Douglas : When briefings are given to politicians visiting the Soviet Union does the Ministry of Defence classify D5 Trident missiles as a first-strike or a second-strike weapon?

Mr. Hamilton : That is a hypothetical question because in practice no briefings are given to hon. Members visiting the Soviet Union.

Mr. Redwood : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is better to go to Washington and Brussels first when trying to construct a defence and disarmament strategy so that nothing is given away in talks to the Russians due to not knowing our allies' position?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When formulating a defence policy it is strange to discuss it with the Communist Government. That must be an indication of the Leftward leanings of the Opposition.

Low Flying (Germany)

3. Mr. Fatchett : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received from (i)

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German citizens and (ii) the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany seeking a reduction of low flying in Germany.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : My right hon. Friend has not received any such representations from citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany, but last week he had discussions with his German colleague, Dr. Scholz, about a wide range of issues of mutual interest, including ways in which it might be possible to ease the impact of low-flying training on German citizens.

Mr. Fatchett : I am glad that the Minister is now giving some information about last week's meeting because the Ministry of Defence press release made no reference to German representations about low-flying aircraft. Are we to understand from the Minister's answer that there will now be a reduction in the number of low flights over West Germany? If that is the case, will there be a subsequent increase in the number of such flights over the United Kingdom? If so, may I advise the Minister that that would be totally unacceptable to the people of this country?

Mr. Neubert : None of those assumptions is correct. The hon. Gentleman might have helped himself by studying the transcript of the press conference given by my right hon. Friend and the German Defence Minister.

Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that the low flying carried out in West Germany and in this country is an integral part of our defence posture in terms of deterrence? Does he also agree that the amount of low flying carried out in this country is roughly the same as that carried out in West Germany and that the vast majority of the German population understand the need for it and would support its continuance at the present level?

Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend is correct. Low-level flying is a military requirement and there is an essential minimum of flying training that must be carried out over West European terrain. There is substantial public support for that training because it is considered a crucial part of our operating capability.

Mr. Molyneaux : Does the Minister not feel that the German people, of all people, would understand the vital necessity of low flying training, bearing in mind that if Goering's Luftwaffe air fleet had crossed the Channel in 1940 at wave top height the outcome of the battle of Britain might have been very different?

Mr. Neubert : We can all learn from history and I am sure that the West German public will not be slow to take that lesson.

Anglo-French Reciprocal Purchasing Initiative

4. Mr. Quentin Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what has been achieved through the Anglo-French reciprocal purchasing initiative.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The progress of this initiative has been good.Some contracts have already been signed and more tenders are under consideration on both sides of the Channel. A French contracts bulletin is now being published, three successful

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conferences have been held and there are regular and increasing contacts between procurement staffs at all levels.

Mr. Davies : Given that public procurement in general would be on a non-discriminatory basis in the European single market after 1992, does my hon. Friend agree that in defence too, there are the strongest reasons for achieving maximum economies of scale in research and production and the greatest inter-operability of equipment? Does he accept that he and his colleagues will receive the strongest support in the House for any progress that they can make in that direction?

Mr. Sainsbury : My hon. Friend is right in identifying three of the main advantages to be obtained from agreements such as the one to which the question relates. First, there is a saving in research and development expenditure ; secondly, there are savings from longer production runs ; thirdly, of course, he raised the important point that there are benefits to the alliance from greater

inter-operability of service equipment.

Atomic Weapons Testing (Compensation)

5. Mr. Michael J. Martin : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had about compensating those affected by British atomic weapons testing in Australia.

Mr. Sainsbury : Ministers have had a number of discussions with various groups and individuals on the question of possible compensation for those who have claimed that their ill health is attributable to participation in the United Kingdom's nuclear test.

Mr. Martin : The Minister will know of the recent Australian Supreme Court decision when Mr. Rick Johnstone, an ex-airman who was present at a British atomic site in the 1950s, was awarded £300,000 compensation. Surely it is only fair to the families and to the surviving airmen, some of whom are in great pain and discomfort, for the British Government to provide proper compensation for men who were present at those sites in good faith.

Mr. Sainsbury : The judgment of the Australian court is not yet available in this country. We shall certainly study it with great care when it is available because we are anxious to be as fair as possible and to treat all our service men on an equal basis. Indeed, if we established to our satisfaction that there was a link between a person's presence at the atomic tests and an illness we would be anxious to give compensation. When the Australian judgment becomes available, however, we may find that it is not directly relevant to the issue with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned.

Mr. Churchill : Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is beyond the bounds of what is reasonable to expect British ex-service men who took part in this country's Australian and Pacific nuclear test programme in the 1950s and who are now suffering from leukaemia and various forms of cancer- -some have already died--to prove, as the Government at present require them to prove, that their illnesses are a direct result of that nuclear test programme? Bearing in mind the service that those people gave to this country in the prime of their youth, would it not be more

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satisfactory to consider whether there is a reasonable balance of probability that their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation during that test programme? Will my hon. Friend consider that?

Mr. Sainsbury : We have the greatest sympathy with those who are suffering ill health and who genuinely and sincerely believe that that is attributable to their participation in tests. My hon. Friend will be aware, as will the House, of the National Radiological Protection Board's extensive research programme and of its findings, and we are continuing to keep that under review. My hon. Friend will also be aware that in our actions we must be fair to all service men--those who took part in the tests and those who did not--and treat all of them fairly and equally.

Mr. Boyes : In view of the strong comments from both sides of the House, is not the Minister's reply complacent, insulting and a kick in the teeth for British service men? Is the Minister saying that British service men are worth less than Australian service men, that British service men suffered less than Australian service men or that British service men are more resistant to radiation than Australian service men? If the answer to those questions is no and Mr. Rick Johnstone receives £300,000 compensation, should not British service men receive an equal amount for their suffering over the many years following those tests?

Mr. Sainsbury : I appreciate the concern on both sides of the House about this important issue. That is why the National Radiological Protection Board conducted its independent research, and it would be unreasonable completely to ignore the outcome of that research. It might be wiser for the hon. Gentleman to delay his somewhat outspoken comments about Mr. Johnstone until we have all had the opportunity to see the Australian court's judgment which is not yet available in Britain.


6. Mr. Ashby : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when next he intends to visit Belize.

Mr. Younger : I was in Belize last month to visit British forces there. I was greatly impressed by the efficiency and enthusiasm with which they are fulfilling their important role. I was also able to meet the Prime Minister of Belize, Mr. Esquivel. I have no plans to visit Belize again in the immediate future.

Mr. Ashby : Without wishing to give Guatemala a wrong signal, will my right hon. Friend consider the good will towards Britain and the progress towards democracy in Guatemala when deciding upon the level of the defence forces to be kept in Belize?

Mr. Younger : Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. I found great good will towards the British defence forces and the British Government, and the Prime Minister of Belize expressed his gratitude for all that the British forces do there. My hon. Friend will know that talks are continuing with the Government of Guatemala, but in the meantime I assured the Prime Minister that British forces would remain for an appropriate period at the request of the Government of Belize.

Mr. Frank Cook : When assessing the conditions of service men and service women in Belize, will the Secretary

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of State bear in mind the comments made during the debate on the Defence Estimates about pay, allowances and conditions throughout our armed forces and give a categorical assurance that he will consider council house-- [Interruption.] A Freudian slip, Mr. Speaker--I would buy another if I had the chance. [Interruption.] It is Labour party policy.

Will the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that he will consider the points made about house purchase assistance and that service pay and allowances will be guaranteed against inflation?

Mr. Younger : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks and I recall what was said in the recent Estimates debate. I assure him that we give high priority to trying to obtain an appropriate form of military salary with a mix of allowances to reflect service men's conditions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, every year the armed forces pay review body has made recommendations and every year the Government have implemented them in full.

I found the soldiers in Belize living in conditions less comfortable than in Britain or the British Army of the Rhine, but all were clear that they greatly enjoyed being there and found it most valuable training.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Belize is the last place where British soldiers can have experience of jungle warfare? Will he therefore take a robust line with his Treasury colleagues?

Mr. Yonger : I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. Belize is certainly a good place for jungle training. I was able to take part in some jungle training myself-- [Interruption.] It is very valuable and useful in the House. Training in such conditions is undoubtedly valuable for British forces, all of whom have expressed great satisfaction at the training facilities available.

Mr. Cartwright : Does the Secretary of State accept that the so- called temporary nature of the British military presence in Belize has been used as a reason not to provide the kind of investment in facilities that is really needed in such an extreme climate? As British troops have been there for 40 years, can we not give them the decent living and working conditions that they deserve if they are to stay there much longer?

Mr. Younger : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. We are examining the accounting methods used for planning improvements in Belize. I shall be looking at that very carefully in future.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Does my right hon. Friend agree that in that part of central America the presence of British forces in Belize is regarded as a strong force for stability, especially in the run-up to the Guatemalan presidential election? Will my right hon. Friend also comment on the role of British forces in Belize as a forward emergency task force in the case of hurricane damage in the Caribbean?

Mr. Younger : During my visit it was made very clear to me by all concerned that the presence of British troops is very welcome to the people and Government of Belize and also, I believe, to the Government of Guatemala. All concerned made a point of expressing to me their tremendous gratitude for the help that the British services gave during hurricane Gilbert earlier last year.

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United States Secretary of State for Defence

7. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last met the United States Secretary of Defence ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Younger : I met the United States Secretary of Defence at the Wehrkunde conference at the end of last month. A range of matters of mutual interest were discussed.

Mr. Mullin : What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Americans about their plans to double their spending on military bases in Britain in the next two years? Has he been consulted, and does he have any plans to tell Parliament about them, or must we rely on reports from Washington?

Mr. Younger : Any such improvements to American bases in this country have to be subject to the approval of the British Government. We understand that the projected improvements are to improve existing facilities for existing services at those bases.

Mr. Oppenheim : In considering the general principle of discussing defence matters, does my right hon. Friend agree that Bruce Kent got things right for once when he said that anyone who needed to go to Moscow to discuss defence matters obviously did not have a defence policy of their own?

Mr. Younger : I saw a report of that remark, but I have not raised or discussed it with the United States Administration.

Mr. Livingstone : Does the Secretary of State agree that the doubling of defence expenditure on bases in Britain by the Americans would broadcast completely the wrong signal to the Soviet Union at this time and would undoubtedly strengthen those forces in the Soviet Union who are trying to slow down the pace of Gorbachev's proposals for disarmament? Will the Secretary of State therefore join what I think would be the overwhelming majority view in Britain, ensure that the expenditure does not take place and instead respond positively to Gorbachev's proposals and give a European lead towards reducing the presence of American troops in Europe?

Mr. Younger : I have already explained that the expenditure on United States bases is to make existing facilities more effective. The hon. Gentleman is way behind the game with regard to reductions, and Mr. Gorbachev is miles behind this country and NATO in the reductions that we have made. Since 1979 we have reduced our nuclear warheads by 2,400, even before the INF treaty was implemented. That is a reduction of about 35 per cent. in nuclear warheads. Mr. Gorbachev has a long way to go before he gets anywhere near that.

Mr. Bill Walker : When my right hon. Friend next meets the United States Secretary of Defence, will he bring to his attention that it is essential that the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force maintain the ability and capability of flying low and fast to hit targets? Never again must we have the situation that we faced in 1940, when air crew were required to fly with great valour Fairey Battles and Bristol Blenheims against heavily defended targets at

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the cost of severe losses. Winning a Victoria cross was never a substitute for the ability to take out a target effectively and properly.

Mr. Younger : I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend, and so does all of NATO. Although I feel sure that it will not be necessary to remind the new United States Secretary of Defence of that fact, I feel sure that he, too, agrees strongly with my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Sean Hughes : In view of the reply by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to my question last month, in which he stated that there will still be a role for tactical nuclear weapons in the event of conventional parity being reached, did the right hon. Gentleman explain to the United States Secretary of Defence that the British Government have unilaterally changed the basis of flexible response, which they have consistently argued allows for the tactical nuclear option because of the Warsaw pact's overwhelming conventional superiority?

Mr. Younger : There has been no change in the doctrine of flexible response. If, as the hon. Gentleman and I hope, the stage is reached where there is parity of conventional weapons, a very different situation will exist in the world of arms control generally. No doubt all sorts of matters would have to be examined afresh.

Mr. Brazier : Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe the Americans a great debt of gratitude for their commitment to Europe? Does he further agree that, at a time when the American foreign exchange costs of keeping their forces in Europe are approximately equal to their entire overseas payments deficit, future agendas should include discussions on burden sharing?

Mr. Younger : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the debate on burden sharing in NATO should continue in the months ahead. I have no doubt that there is now better appreciation on the other side of the Atlantic of the large amount that European nations do in their own defence- -and there is a determination to do more whenever we can.

Nuclear Accidents (Emergency Planning)

8. Mr. Alton : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what advice is given to area health authorities for emergency planning in the event of radioactive emission from a nuclear-powered submarine while in port ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Younger : Area health authorities are represented on the liaison committees that produce safety schemes for all United Kingdom ports in which there are berths for nuclear-powered submarines. They are provided with information on possible consequences of, and hazards from, any submarine nuclear reactor accident, and advice on suitable protective measures to deal with such an event.

Mr. Alton : Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to consider a report published recently by academics at the University of Wales, suggesting that the Royal Navy grievously underestimates the effects of a nuclear submarine accident on the civilian population in places such as Plymouth, Liverpool and Cardiff? Has he read today's report from Greenpeace, suggesting that levels of radiation are nine times higher than official acceptable levels in places near to bases in Scotland? Does

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the Secretary of State agree that safety levels should be reconsidered, that local authorities should reassess their plans for dealing with nuclear accidents, and that restrictions should be placed on submarines entering densely populated areas?

Mr. Younger : We are extremely strong on nuclear submarine safety. We would never allow a nuclear submarine to enter any port unless it was thoroughly approved by the nuclear safety inspectorate concerned, which reports directly to us. The hon. Gentleman can be well assured of that. As to this morning's report from Greenpeace, I see nothing to quarrel with in the methodology used in calculating estimated radiation levels, but I quarrel with the conclusions that are drawn. As I understand it, the Greenpeace study concludes, that, at worst, approximately 1 per cent. of the permitted level of radiation might be suffered by somebody affected in the areas studied. To place that in perspective, it is equivalent to the amount of radiation to which we are all exposed on a return shuttle flight to Glasgow. It is absurd to suggest that that causes any danger to anyone.

Mr. McFall : The Secretary of State knows that the emergency planning procedures for the Clyde public safety scheme have been revised. Will he give an undertaking today that the Ministry of Defence will have meaningful discussions with the local authority, and to demonstrate that approach will the Secretary of State allow the local authorities funding for independent monitoring so that public confidence in the area may be maintained?

Mr. Younger : I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we are consulting local authorities, and will continue to do so, on an ongoing basis to draw up public safety schemes. I understand that authorities in his area are among those taking part in such discussions. With regard to reporting on these schemes, we provide the maximum information that we can, and that should be sufficient for everyone to take a full part in the discussions.

NATO Secretary-General

10. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next intends to meet the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ; and what matters he hopes to discuss.

Mr. Younger : I next expect to see Dr. Wo"rner at the meeting of NATO's nuclear planning group in the late spring. We shall discuss a range of subjects of mutual interest.

Mr. Riddick : When my right hon. Friend next meets the secretary- general, will he discuss the urgent need to modernise NATO's short-range nuclear missiles, particularly bearing in mind the great superiority of the Soviet Union in this area? Can he assure the House that if there is a change of policy in this area it will be as a result of tough negotiations with the Russians rather than of having accepted the cosy advice of the Russians?

Mr. Younger : I note what my hon. Friend says. NATO will have to come to the question of the modernisation of short-range weapons and I am sure that it will bear in mind that there are very strong arguments for having such weapons--arguments that I have often deployed myself. There are also strong arguments, although I do not agree

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with them, for not having these weapons at all. But I submit that there are no arguments for having out-of-date unmodernised weapons, which are useless to all concerned.

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