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House of Commons

Tuesday 9 May 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Aircraft Orders

1. Mr. David Nicholson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what aircraft have been ordered by his Department for the Royal Air Force since 1979.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, it would be appropriate before we answer questions, to ask the House to join us in expressing sadness at the deaths of two naval airmen in an aircraft accident yesterday at Portland and in extending to their families our deepest sympathy. I refer my hon. Friend to table 5 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1989", published last week, copies of which are available in the Library. He will note from that table that firm orders for a total of 550 RAF aircraft of eight different types have been placed since 1979.

Mr. Nicholson : As the first hon. Member to ask a question, may I strongly support my hon. Friend's first sentences. Obviously, flying the new aircraft, the orders for which we welcome, requires very rigorous training. Will my hon. Friend ensure that those pilots whose training involves low flights, which are particularly pronounced in my constituency, notably in Exmoor and west Somerset, are fully aware of the rules and regulations regarding low flying? Will my hon. Friend and his colleagues immediately look into any suggestion that the rules and regulations have been departed from?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes. I can assure my hon. Friend that any incidents of low flying which are brought to our attention in which people did not abide by the rules are rigorously investigated and everything is done to ensure that low flying is properly regulated.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Royal Air Force now has the best modern equipment of any time to meet the envisaged problems and that the aircraft which the Government have ordered do just that? Does he further agree that our aircrew are the most professional and highly trained in the western world? But there is no point in those two achievements if the aircraft--particularly strike aircraft--do not have modern stand-off capabilities otherwise they become very risky against sophisticated modern Soviet defences. Therefore it is essential that we have modern stand-off capabilities and we must upgrade those weapons systems.

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Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why it is so important that our plans to replace the WE177 free-fall bomb with a tactical air-to-surface missile are so vital.

Mr. Rogers : On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I associate the Opposition with the sentiments expressed by the Minister to the families of those killed in yesterday's tragic accident. In view of his answer, which could be quite misleading, will the Minister say how many of the new aircraft have been put into storage because of inadequate radar, how many have been brought in simply as replacements after flying accidents, and how many have been put into full operational service with the RAF?

Mr. Hamilton : There are a number of aircraft which have been put into storage at the moment. That is because of the most economical form of production run. There were some aircraft in which the radars were not up to scratch, but now the radars are improving rather faster than the aircraft so many of the aircraft are being brought into service. There was a small problem but it has been overcome.

MOD Police

2. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his policy toward the deployment of members of the Ministry of Defence police on land outside his Department's responsibility.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Tim Sainsbury) : The deployment of members of the Ministry of Defence police is an operational matter for the chief constable, in accordance with the provisions of the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987.

Mr. Skinner : Does the Minister recall that his hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in Standing Committee on 12 February 1987 that Ministry of Defence police would be used only where defence interests were involved? If that is so, why were they used at Stonehenge? Will the Minister guarantee that the Ministry of Defence police will not be used against workers on strike, or is he in favour of secondary policing?

Mr. Sainsbury : Neither the hon. Gentleman nor myself were members of the Committee, although the record of its proceedings is in Hansard. If the hon. Gentleman had been a member of the Committee, he might have been more familiar with section 2 of the Ministry of Defence Police Act 1987. I draw his attention especially to subsection 2(2)(d), which makes clear the power of the Ministry of Defence police to operate outside Ministry of Defence land, including in support of a Home Office constabulary.

Mr. Key : My hon. Friend will be aware of my scepticism at the passage of that Act, in that it created for the first time a national police force under the direct control of a Minister of the Crown. However, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is wrong in what he says. Will my hon. Friend accept that it is invaluable that the Ministry of Defence police help the civil police in disturbances that may arise, and in the protection of Stonehenge in my constituency? The delicate balance between the maintenance of the Queen's peace and the

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upholding of the law is enhanced considerably by the devotion, dedication and professionalism of the Ministry of Defence police.

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said about the loyal and dedicated service given by the Ministry of Defence police. The chief constable of Wiltshire was grateful for the assistance rendered a year ago by the Ministry of Defence police in helping his force to maintain law and order and in protecting an important monument, in addition to the wellbeing of my hon. Friend's constituents.

Foulness and Maplin

3. Dr. Michael Clark : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans or proposals he has for returning Foulness island and Maplin sands to civilian use.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : None, Sir. The use of Foulness island and Maplin sands is essential to the operation of the proof and experimental establishment at Shoeburyness. It makes a vital, impartial and cost- effective contribution to ensuring the safety and effectiveness of our weapons systems.

Dr. Clark : Is my hon. Friend aware that there are rumours in my constituency that a consortium is seeking to build a major international airport on Maplin sands? Will he confirm that he is not negotiating with that consortium, or any other, and that he has no intention or plans to do so at present?

Mr. Neubert : I am aware of the rumours circulating in my hon. Friend's constituency. Matters of airport policy are for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Nuclear Submarines (Accidents)

4. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the worst possible accident of a nuclear submarine in or near a British port for which his Department has emergency plans ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : The nuclear accident plans of the Ministry of Defence are prepared in line with the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. The reference accident, on which the plans are based, envisages the release of some radioactive fission products into the atmosphere. In accordance with the ICRP recommendations, the plans are designed to be flexible enough to apply in worse accidents. In addition to that, the Royal Navy regularly exercises some of these extremely improbable accidents. The plans also consider the possibility that the submarine could sink.

Mr. Evans : Yes, but will the Minister confirm that the worst possible accident that could occur to a nuclear submarine in port would be a primary containment failure, which would put many civilian lives at risk? Will he also confirm that local authority emergency planning officers have never been briefed about that probability and would have, therefore, no idea how to react if such an accident occurred?

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Mr. Hamilton : It is probable in those circumstances that the submarine would burn and then sink. The radioactivity would be contained if the submarine sank, as water is the best substance for containing it.

Mr. Greg Knight : Is not the worst possible scenario an attack when we had a Government who were not prepared to press the firing button?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, that is right. There is no point in having a nuclear deterrent unless one is prepared to use it. I am sure that the Soviet Union will have taken into account the fact that the Opposition are saying that they are not prepared to use it.

Dr. Reid : Is the Minister aware that on Sunday 7 May 1989 a vehicle allegedly transporting radioactive materials was involved in an accident at Cleland in my constituency? Can he confirm that there was radioactive material on board that vehicle? If so, will he confirm whether the vehicle bore the appropriate markings? Will he give a categorical assurance that the lives and personal safety of my constituents were not endangered? Will he now accept the unsuitability of that particular road between the two motorways for vehicles carrying hazardous substances and order a full investigation into why it was there in the first place?

Mr. Hamilton : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having given me notice of his supplementary question. I understand that, on a journey from Derby to the naval dockyard at Rosyth on Sunday, a contractors' lorry carrying a portable cabin belonging to Rolls-Royce and associates was involved in a minor accident on the road to Cleland, Lanarkshire. The cabin was one used in the non-destructive examination of plant and equipment. Police took precautions on learning that, although there were no radioactive sources within the cabin, it carried an aluminium container and a roll of plythene properly marked with warning tapes, which both held items which were mildly contaminated with radioactivity through having been used in test procedures. Anyone would have been able to pick up and handle the items without coming to any harm. Once the lorry's load had been re- adjusted the lorry continued on its journey to Rosyth.

Nuclear Weapons

5. Mr. Pike : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the most recent proposals for new nuclear artillery shells.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Younger) : SACEUR's latest nuclear weapons requirement study addresses the full spectrum of NATO's nuclear requirements, including the need to continue with the modernisation of NATO's nuclear artillery shells.

Mr. Pike : The Secretary of State will know that Chancellor Kohl has called for equal ceilings for nuclear artillery shells at drastically reduced levels. Does not that conflict with the policy of the United States Government to modernise and to develop new nuclear shells that are capable of being turned into neutron bombs? Will the Secretary of State argue that the new shells should not be deployed in Europe?

Mr. Younger : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with SACEUR's nuclear weapons

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requirement study. The proposals in it include a very large net reduction in the number of nuclear warheads. That compares with the fact that NATO has reduced its nuclear warheads by no less than 2,400 in recent years, whereas the Soviet Union has made practically no reduction. It is well open to the Soviet Union to make reductions if it so wishes.

Mr. Janman : Can my right hon. Friend predict what the effect would be on his Department's ability to defend the country, on the morale of the armed forces and on the nation's security, if the Labour party's policies on defence were implemented?

Mr. Younger : That is extremely difficult to predict, but it is certainly true that any policy that tried to throw over the policy of nuclear deterrence, which is supported by all countries in NATO, would be quite disastrous for the safety and security of this country.

Mr. James Lamond : In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) the Secretary of State mentioned 2,400 warheads. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when I mentioned the subject to the Prime Minister at Question Time, she dismissed it as nothing at all--just a small reduction by NATO? Will the right hon. Gentleman have a word with the Prime Minister and tell her which story they should go forward with?

Mr. Younger : I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. The Prime Minister has often referred to those figures, as have I. The hon. Gentleman must face the fact that the policy of nuclear deterrence is supported by all members of NATO without exception--including all those with Socialist Governments. The Labour party is in danger of getting out of step with all of them.

Mr. Sayeed : Will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the balance of nuclear-capable artillery between Soviet and NATO forces?

Mr. Younger : I shall be glad to remind the House of the modernisation that has been taking place. For instance, the Soviet Union has modernised 95 per cent.--almost all--its short-range nuclear missile systems in the past five years. It has replaced Frog missiles with the more capable SS21s and it is deploying the AS16 missile, which is a tactical air -to-surface missile. Labour Members who are supposed to be considering these matters should be a bit realistic about what is going on in the world.

Nuclear Tests (Compensation)

6. Mr. Hinchliffe : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will review his policy on compensation for veterans of British nuclear tests.

Mr. Sainsbury : The policy of my Department is to pay appropriate compensation wherever the Crown's legal liability is established. Since there is no firm evidence to show that the health of British test veterans was affected by exposure to radiation during the United Kingdom's nuclear test programme, the Government remain of the view that the Crown cannot be held legally liable for any ill-health suffered by those who participated. We do, of course, have the greatest sympathy with those who suffer illness and who believe, quite sincerely, that this is due to

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their participation in the nuclear test programme. However, in the circumstances, we see no reason to change our policy on the question of compensation.

Mr. Hinchliffe : As the Australian Government are paying compensation to certain veterans as a result of their involvement in a nuclear test, and the United States Government are paying compensation for 13 forms of cancer contracted by personnel involved in nuclear tests, is it not especially mean and insensitive for the British Government not to consider compensation for British service personnel who have been involved in the same tests? Will the Government consider the appointment of an ombudsman independently to analyse those compensation claims?

Mr. Sainsbury : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have studied the National Radiological Protection Board, report, which was independent and authoritative. I am sure that he will have due regard to its findings.

I understand that the terms of the judgment of the Australian court were published in Australia only last Thursday, although judgment was given rather earlier. A copy of the terms of that judgment was received by my Department only yesterday, so we have not had time to study its contents. I cannot yet say whether it will have any relevance or give us any cause for reassessing our position.

Mr. Sumberg : Does my hon. Friend agree that, however generous the compensation, none would be sufficient to compensate for the loss of life and freedom that would be engendered by this country adopting the foolish and ill-considered policies of the Opposition? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that the same rules apply here as in Prime Minister's questions. Questions must relate to Government responsibility.

Mr. Sainsbury : My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that over the years members of our armed forces have been prepared to give very loyal service and to suffer injury and death to protect their country. We have drawn attention-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Sainsbury : I am seeking to reply to the point raised by my hon. Friend. I re-emphasise that it has always been the policy of my Department to give compensation where liability has been established. We also have a system of pensions for those who have been injured or for the dependants of those who have lost their lives in service to their country.

Mr. Boyes : That was a most disappointing and insensitive series of replies. It is unacceptable that the Minister is not offering compensation to nuclear test veterans. Will he, however, assure the House that he will consider giving compensation to those other nuclear veterans, the submariners, who have been discovered to have contracted cancer because of their service in nuclear submarines? Today the Minister's replies are nothing less than complacent, dilatory and lacking in care. It is about time that the Minister gave the House a guarantee that the Government will do something for those people who have suffered because of nuclear tests or their service in nuclear submarines.

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Mr. Sainsbury : I hope that the hon. Gentleman, speaking as he does from the Front Bench, will have regard to the importance of being fair to all people involved and not just to those who are suffering from cancer, which they believe may have been caused by their participation in nuclear tests. As cause or connection was not established by the NRPB study, we have a responsibility to be fair to everybody--those who are suffering from cancers, who were not involved in nuclear tests, and those who were.

As is not unusual, the hon. Gentleman has gone off rather ahead of any factual information. The study to which he referred has been in progress for some time, and it is a study to check the general health of submariners. The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the fact that, if one is beneath the sea, one is protected from the nuclear radiation that all the rest of us are exposed to as we go about our normal business.

Nuclear Weapons

7. Mr. Eastham : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received from his Belgian counterpart about Her Majesty's Government's policy towards the modernisation of short-range nuclear weapons.

Mr. Younger : In recent weeks my Belgian colleague and I have discussed the question of modernising NATO's short-range nuclear weapons both bilaterally and at a meeting of NATO's nuclear planning group. The NPG communique , to which we both subscribed, reflects a large measure of agreement on essentials.

Mr. Eastham : Is it not a fact that the Belgian Prime Minister, Mr. Wilfried Martens, has been pressing the Government and other NATO countries for earnest East-West discussions about reductions in nuclear short-range forces? Why are the Government continuing the arms race philosophy, being so hard-line and causing such disagreement nowadays in NATO, such that the British Government seem to be the only Government who want to perpetuate the arms race?

Mr. Younger : The hon. Gentleman is not fair to the Belgian Government because all along the Belgian Government have supported the main NATO strategy of nuclear deterrence and have strongly said that they do not favour a third zero of the shorter-range nuclear forces. They agree that weapons systems must be kept up to date. We must be fair to the Belgian Government.

I wish to make it quite clear that the British Government consider the policy of nuclear deterrence, in which the shorter-range nuclear weapons play an important part, as a key factor in preventing war. It is to prevent all war that all our policy is directed and it has been successful over the past 40 years.

Mr. Devlin : Will my right hon. Friend take time during his next discussions with the Belgian Defence Minister to assure him that this Government will stand firmly behind the NATO strategy of nuclear deterrence, will ensure that proper conventional forces are supplied into the future for NATO's deployment and will ensure that we shall never let our allies down by backing out of NATO or even discussing such a possibility?

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Mr. Younger : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend and I re-affirm definitely that we in this Government entirely support the prevention of war by nuclear deterrence. In that we are supported absolutely unanimously by all our NATO allies of all political persuasions. All hon. Members, especially those in the Labour party, should reflect on that carefully at this time.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the right hon. Gentleman support President Bush in his new policy of re-integration towards the Soviet Union? Does he accept that that signifies that United States is moving towards the Kohl- Genscher view on the modernisation of nuclear weapons? Will he take steps to advise the Prime Minister to moderate her views before President Bush moderates them for her?

Mr. Younger : I fully support what the United States has been saying on these subjects in recent weeks under its new

Administration. Its words are absolutely in line with those of myself and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. Leigh : Would my right hon. Friend retain any credibility with his Belgian counterpart if he supported the modernisation of short-range nuclear weapons on the basis that he doubted whether they were any use at all, that he would never use them anyway, and that he would phase them out by the year 2000? Would not even the Belgians think that my right hon. Friend was guilty of fudge and mudge?

Mr. Younger : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot think of anyone in any of the other member states of NATO who would agree that the possession of a deterrent that one says that one would never use is of any use whatever.

Mr. O'Neill : Will the Secretary of State say which members of NATO support the Government's position on modernisation because not even the United States is prepared to go along with that and is itself seeking a compromise with the Federal Republic of Germany?

Mr. Younger : In answering that, I cannot do better than to quote from the NATO communique , to which all members of the Alliance subscribe--

Mr. O'Neill : Not completely.

Mr. Younger : Including my Belgian colleague. The words that he subscribed to are :

"For the foreseeable future our strategy of deterrence will continue to require both conventional and nuclear forces. At this meeting we again expressed our determination to ensure that NATO possesses diversified, survivable and operationally flexible nuclear forces across the entire spectrum. These forces must be kept up-to-date where necessary."

That is a complete answer to the hon. Gentleman and to his party while it is trying to work out its future policy.

Soviet Air Force

8. Mr. Mans : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what information he has as to whether the Soviet Air Force has reduced its offensive capability.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : We have no evidece to indicate that the Soviet air force has reduced its offensive capability ; indeed there are signs that this capability has continued to grow. My hon. Friend will find this aspect covered more fully in the 1989 defence White Paper.

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Mr. Mans : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that it shows the need constantly to update our own Air Force equipment and to be prepared, if necessary, to use that equipment, which the Labour party's policy does not recognise? That is the only way to ensure that we can negotiate arms reductions from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Mr. Hamilton : That is absolutely true. The Soviet Union is producing 600 new fighters every year and 40 to 45 heavy and medium bombers. Those are becoming increasingly better equipped and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Soviets have a good tactical air-to-surface missile which, I am quite convinced, is more sophisticated than our free-fall nuclear bomb.

Mr. Watts : Does my hon. Friend agree that his assessment of the offensive capability of the Soviet air force would be affected if President Gorbachev had given an undertaking never to make use of that offensive capability?

Mr. Hamilton : That is right. We are still awaiting such a pronouncement from President Gorbachev that he is not prepared to use armaments. His existence as president of the Soviet Union would be short- lived if he made such an announcement.

Burden Sharing

9. Mr. Clay : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how the latest United States plans for burden sharing will affect United Kingdom defence costs and commitments.

Mr. Hamilton : The defence planning committee report published in December 1988, on the sharing of roles, risks and responsibilities within the Alliance acknowledges the United Kingdom's substantial and comprehensive commitment to the Alliance. However, it calls on us to continue efforts to achieve greater efficiency and value for money from the existing resources we commit to defence and to improve the real value of our defence budget. We fully accept this NATO challenge.

Mr. Clay : Will the Minister give an undertaking that one form of burden sharing that the Government will not go in for will be to accept in this country the American short-range modernised nuclear weapons which the west Germans had the good sense to refuse in their country?

Mr. Hamilton : The question of the follow-on to Lance being based in this country does not arise. We will, of course, review whether tactical air-to-surface missiles and dual-capable aircraft are based in this country.

Mr. Thorne : While I accept the need to ensure that everyone carries a fair burden in NATO, will my hon. Friend remind our American allies that it is also important that burden sharing in the far east is encouraged? The Japanese, by their actions, have been forced severely to reduce their contribution in the years since the war. That has been a major contribution to the fact that the Japanese are able to take us on in the industrial world. Would it not be better to ensure that the Japanese also make a fair contribution?

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Mr. Hamilton : I know that our friends in the United States are concerned about the contribution made by the Japanese to the defence effort in the far east, and that is certainly something which we are discussing with them.

Mr. Cryer : Would it not be fairer if we reduced the level of our defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP to the average of our NATO allies? That would release some facilities that we could put into manufacturing industry, and so move towards the level of GDP percentage spending achieved by the Japanese Government, which is less than 1 per cent. We might then be able to emulate the success in manufacturing industry achieved worldwide by the Japanese.

Mr. Hamilton : I believe that the Japanese contribution to defence spending is in excess of 1 per cent. and, because its economy is so large, it is one of the biggest defence budgets in the world. We have a defence budget that meets our commitments and we should not reduce it below that level. We have made an enormous contribution to British industry and our defence exports are one of the finest parts of our overall export performance.


10. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to meet the Secretary of Defence of the United States of America to discuss the case for improving upon existing levels of defence efforts among west European NATO partners.

Mr. Younger : I expect to meet the United States Secretary for Defence, along with other Alliance Defence Ministers, at the NATO defence planning committee in Brussels next month. We shall discuss a wide range of issues, including the sharing of roles, risks and responsibilities within the Alliance.

Mr. Taylor : At that meeting, will my right hon. Friend draw attention to the fact that six members of NATO commit less than 3 per cent. of their GDP to defence spending, which puts increased pressure, particularly on Great Britain and America, to ensure that NATO's defences are steadfast and sufficient? Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that no Government in NATO have refused to pledge themselves to a proper policy of deterrence and the use of such a policy when circumstances require it? Therefore, the present British Government must continue in power to prevent any party from replacing that policy.

Mr. Younger : I agree with my hon. Friend's first point. It is very important that in an Alliance of equal, free, democratic nations all should pull their weight in the common defence. We certainly want to make sure that we play our full part and that we encourage all our allies to do the same.

Not only has the policy of deterrence been inordinately successful over many years now, but it is pointless to have a deterrent that one says in advance one is not prepared to use. The Government's policy is clear : the best way of preventing all war is nuclear deterrence.

Sir Antony Buck : When my right hon. Friend meets the United States Secretary of Defence, will he express to him the gratitude felt by most people in this country for the fact that the United States maintains such a substantial

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commitment for the defence of Europe and that 100,000 of "their boys" are in Europe largely in our defence, as well as theirs?

Mr. Younger : I agree. The American contribution to NATO's common defence efforts is notable and welcome. It is worth adding that it was put in train by the American Government precisely because they understand that the defence of the United States of America starts in Europe. That is why they put their weight into it.

Armoured Vehicles

11. Mr. Andrew Mitchell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what armoured vehicles have been ordered by his Department for the Army since 1979.

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