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House of Commons

Tuesday 9 January 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium Limited Bill

Order for consideration of Lords amendments read.

To be considered on Thursday.

British Railways Bill

Order for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday.

Vale of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill


Medway Tunnel Bill


Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday.

Oral Answers to Questions


Eastern Europe

1. Mr. Terry Fields : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the effect on the level of the United Kingdom's forces of the changing situation in eastern Europe.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : We shall continue to give full support to NATO's strategy for peace and security and shall foster dialogue with the nations of eastern Europe while maintaining effective nuclear and conventional forces at the minimum levels necessary for deterrence.

Mr. Fields : Does the Minister agree that the level of defence spending by the Government is an obscenity and a waste, when a fraction of that money would resolve the ambulance dispute and fund expenditure on the environment, our infrastructure, education, health and other matters? Who is the enemy--surely not our new-found friends in eastern Europe? Why do the Government persist in posturing as the most fanatical cold war warriors in Europe? Is it not time for a rethink and for Britain to take a realistic approach to defence?

Mr. Hamilton : There is nothing more important than the defence of these islands and although changes are taking place in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, there is tremendous uncertainty there and nobody knows what the future will bring.

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Mr. Speaker : Sir Alan Glyn.

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Sir Alan Glyn : Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite all the changes in Europe, in Russia and in the satellite countries, Russia still represents a formidable force and that we should in no way drop our defences but should retain our nuclear deterrent until Europe has settled down and a peace settlement can be reached?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is right. It is probable, indeed likely, that intentions in the Soviet Union have changed, but recently the capabilities of the Soviet Union's forces have probably been enhanced with new equipment that has come on stream. We know that intentions can change and the future is uncertain.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Minister accept that the changed political circumstances make it highly unlikely that a follow-on to the Lance missile will be deployed? Will not that make it impossible to sustain the doctrine of flexible response? Does not that in turn make it necessary for the Government to consider a defence strategy based on minimum deterrence?

Mr. Hamilton : As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, our NATO partners remain committed to a follow-on to Lance, and that decision will be taken in 1992. Flexible response is an essential part of our deterrence strategy and I should be unhappy to see us move away from that.

Mr. Speaker : Question No. 2. Mr. Colvin.

Mr. Colvin : No. 2, with one proviso--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask his question. He cannot preface it with a proviso.

Mr. Colvin : I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but the wrong date has been printed on the Order Paper. I do not know whether that is a Freudian slip, but the date should be 1990, not 1999. I fear that the Minister may give me the wrong answer.

Mr. Speaker : If the fault lies with the Table Office, I shall accept that correction.


2. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he is yet in a position to confirm his order for 25 utility EH101 helicopters for delivery in 1999.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : The EH101 utility helicopter programme is still at an early stage. We are giving our attention to a number of different considerations, but it is much too soon to confirm an order.

Mr. Colvin : I am disappointed to hear that answer because in April 1987 my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), the then Secretary of State for Defence, promised an order for delivery early in 1990. That gives rise to a couple of questions. First, can my hon. Friend tell the House whether the project definition stage of the EH101 utility version has yet been completed? If not, when will that happen? Secondly, can my hon. Friend

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say more about the review of the role of the helicopter in the land battle in Europe, which we all badly want to learn about?

Mr. Clark : I remind my hon. Friend that when my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence made his statement about the order for 25 aircraft, he said that it was subject to contractual and other considerations. We hope that the project definition study will be completed in April. The more comprehensive programme of operation analysis will continue. It is a detailed topic that will affect our consideration of the mix of helicopters and other weapons in the battlefields of the future, and we shall be drawing the appropriate lessons for our procurement.

Mr. Ashdown : I take this opportunity to tell the Minister of the seriousness-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has hardly got a word out.

Mr. Ashdown : I remind the Minister of the seriousness of the situation. Does he realise that the two-year delay is creating a serious impediment to the effective financial management of the project, which is so important both to Westland and to the nation? Is the Minister aware that the delay means that the first type 23 frigate will have to wait a full five years--perhaps one quarter of its total life--before it receives the EH101 for which it was designed, and without which its operational effectiveness will be considerably diminished? How can the Minister continue with that folly?

Mr. Clark : If the right hon. Gentleman is honest with himself and with the House, he will acknowledge that a number of specification incompatibilities remain to be solved. Until that is done to our satisfaction, we cannot place an order.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Has the specification been properly thought through in regard to the Army and the Royal Air Force? The signs are that both services are unhappy with the EH101 as a basic helicopter for the future.

Mr. Clark : As I said, there are specification incompatibilities, but it would not be appropriate for me to reveal them to the House. However, they have been fairly well ventilated in the specialist press. My hon. Friend can read those specialist journals and see what he thinks.

Mr. Rogers : The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said that he was unhappy with the Minister's reply. The Opposition are appalled at the Minister's reply. In April 1987, when he cancelled the NH90 project, the then Secretary of State for Defence gave a firm commitment to the EH101, stating that

"we intend to place an order for an initial batch of 25 utility EH101s for delivery in the early 1990s."

We are now in the early 1990s, and still no delivery of EH101s has been made because an order has not been placed. That statement by the then Secretary of State and the Government's current statements serve deliberately to mislead the House.

Mr. Speaker : Order. No Minister deliberately misleads the House.

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Mr. Clark : Characteristically, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) did not complete the quotation. My right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence clearly also used the words : "subject to satisfactory contractual negotiations."--[ Official Report, 9 April 1987 ; Vol. 114, c. 470-71.]

Does the hon. Gentleman want me to order an aircraft before I am satisfied that it is effective and represents good value?

Mr. Marlow : In view of recent changes in eastern Europe, many of which are irreversible, and given the likelihood that, in future, we shall be less involved in a defence policy that is dependent upon armour, and likely to require a more mobile and flexible capability, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are more likely to invest in helicopters than in tanks and armoured vehicles?

Mr. Clark : The mix between helicopters, armour and other weaponry on future battlefields is subject to a detailed programme of operational analysis that my Department is currently undertaking.

Aldermaston (Police Investigations)

3. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress of the MOD police investigations into malpractice at Aldermaston.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Michael Neubert) : I assume that the hon. Gentleman refers to press reports alleging financial malpractice by contractors in connection with the A90 project. I can confirm that certain allegations are the subject of investigation by the MOD police, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment further while that is still in progress.

Mr. Davies : I can understand the reason for the Minister giving that answer. Does he not think that opportunities for malpractice will be considerably greater after privatisation? Will the Minister give particular consideration to the role of the compliance office, and will he tell the House how the newly contracted atomic weapons establishment will be able to ensure that those responsible for monitoring the operations are not dependent on their relationship with those who are contracting? Will he assure us that the compliance office will not enter into direct contractual relationship with private contractors?

Mr. Neubert : There are no grounds for believing that there will be greater opportunities for malpractice under contracted management in the future. It is true that the investigations are taking their time, but they will be completed before long and it would be wrong to jump to any conclusions before we know the results. Safety will be given the highest priority. The hon. Gentleman may care to look at the written answer that I gave the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) on that subject.

Eastern Europe

5. Mr. Beaumont-Dark : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the implications for defence procurement of recent events in eastern Europe.

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Mr. Alan Clark : We welcome recent moves to towards democracy in eastern Europe and hope that they will lead to a sustained improvement in East-West relations and enhanced stability and security in Europe. Certainly those events and other developments will continue to form an important part of the background to our considerations of procurement decisions.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be widely welcomed among thinking people in the House, because of the troublesome and turbulent times through which Russia is going? Any country that has 386 generals who may find themselves unemployed may decide to make dangerous incursions, and that shows that it is not warmongering to be safe, but making sure that we have peace.

Mr. Clark : I welcome the note of caution sounded in my hon. Friend's question, against the background of reckless optimism that I have heard in some quarters. Certainly, the events in eastern Europe have reduced the likelihood of confrontation, but I think that we would all agree that they have not enhanced the stability of that region.

Mr. Douglas : Does the Minister not accept that the threat from the Warsaw pact countries in total has significantly diminished, so the posture of the United Kingdom Government, when they endeavour to retain defence expenditure between 5 and 6 per cent. of gross domestic product, is preposterous in current terms? Should we not be thinking carefully, in view of the implications of a rundown in defence expenditure, about how we can shift from defence manufacturing to civil manufacturing, to meet the needs of eastern Europe and the Third world?

Mr. Clark : Such changes are purely matters for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned. It may be possible for the Soviet Union to switch its industry, as it has a command-led economy of a fairly Socialist kind. We have heard much ill-thought-out nonsense from the Opposition Front Bench about socially acceptable jobs and funds to shift industry from one form of production to another. I am confident that the flexibility and sense of innovation of British industry will be equal to the events, should they arise.

Mr. Jack : In the light of my hon. Friend's current procurement programme, will he tell the House how his Department will react to the contents of the West German Defence Minister's letter about the decision on radar for the European fighter aircraft? Can he tell my constituents, who are involved in building those planes, when they can expect to have an answer?

Mr. Clark : That subject is under close and detailed discussion between the two Governments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will be meeting the West Germans in the near future. No decision has yet been made, but we are fully aware of the great merits of the ECR 90 system.

Mr. Leighton : Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for the relatively sluggish performance of the British and Soviet economies-- and even some difficulties for the American economy--since the war has been the huge burden of armaments that we have borne, and the amount of research and development that we have had to

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invest? West Germany and Japan, on the other hand, have benefited from not having to bear that burden. Would not the beating of swords into ploughshares as early as possible be very much in our national interest?

Mr. Clark : All Government spending is a matter of priorities, and the electorate give their verdict on spending programmes at election time. The House will, however, be interested to learn--and I have no doubt that Opposition Members will welcome this--that social security spending is three times as much as defence spending.

Mr. William Powell : Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be entirely wrong for British defence policy to be adjusted to meet considerations that may be short term? Will he ensure that any changes in the defence budget reflect long-term changes rather than purely temporary factors?

Mr. Clark : Every Minister responsible for procurement is a victim of the fact that leads and lags in weapon orders ensure that that consideration is observed, whatever private intentions may be.

Mr. O'Neill : Following the changes in eastern Europe, against whom will the laser guns fitted to type 22 frigates be deployed? Why have those weapons been shrouded in secrecy for so long, and will Britain join the United States and the Soviet Union in giving an undertaking that they will not be used in any peacetime exercises?

Mr. Clark : It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make such a fuss--and his off-the-cuff remarks on the subject were an absolute disgrace. He made the ludicrous comment that the weapon was a very dangerous means of self-protection, but surely it is desirable to possess a system that guards against trigger-happiness, and against any repetition of the incident when the United States shot down an airliner by mistake.

This is a purely defensive weapon with no offensive capability, and it is an essential adjunct to the Royal Navy's armoury in difficult waters where it may not wish to shoot.

6. Mr. Hind : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to change Britain's defence policy in western Europe following the recent changes in the Governments in East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King) : Our policy in western Europe is based on strong support for the NATO Alliance. NATO's commitment to seeking dialogue with the East while maintaining a strong collective defence has undoubtedly contributed to the welcome changes taking place in eastern Europe.

Mr. Hind : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that, although there have been welcome changes in eastern Europe, it is probably more unstable now than at any time in the past 25 years, and that our defence posture must therefore be cautious? Before making any moves towards a change in defence policy, will my right hon. Friend consider that Mr. Gorbachev has a much stronger hand on the Soviet Union--particularly in relation to dealing with the nationalist movements that are arising on the fringes of the Soviet Union, which would destabilise the whole country and possibly lead to a military takeover?

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Mr. King : I support my hon. Friend's comments about potential dangers and instability. Siren voices suggesting that all the problems were over were heard in a previous defence Question Time, and I remind the House that since then all the events in Romania have taken place and President Gorbachev has threatened to resign. While everyone of good will wishes a successful outcome to the current exciting and important developments, no one can conceal the instability and potential danger of the position.

Mr. James Lamond : If we were prepared to engage in the conventional forces in Europe talks in Vienna when the position in eastern Europe and the Warsaw pact was much more threatening that it is today, why are we still dragging our feet now? Why has no progress been made in the fourth round of talks, and why does this country not take the initiative in ensuring that money is saved, so that it can be used properly for social purposes, both here and abroad?

Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman seems to ignore the active part that we are playing, as a full member of NATO, in the current discussions which we hope will lead to a successful treaty on conventional weapons reductions in Europe during the current year. Our policy is clear : what we wish to achieve--our responsibility to this country and our allies--is greater security at lower force and armament levels. We are determined to achieve that aim, and the possibility is there, but it must be soundly based.

I do not know how many hon. Members listened to the answer that I gave just now. No one can pretend that the present circumstances, especially the developments in the Soviet Union during the past month--the speed of change, and the uncertainty in the area--do not mean that we must do all that we can to advance the cause of peace, while maintaining the security of our country.

Sir Jim Spicer : It has rightly been said today that it will take time for the Ministry of Defence to bring forward its study and decide what the procurement policy should be. In the short term, however, does not my right hon. Friend agree that it would be right and proper to equip properly the fifth airborne brigade with the necessary number of helicopters, so as to make it truly a mobile brigade which is capable of going into action immediately?

Mr. King : My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said that the exact balance of battlefield provision is under study. My hon. Friend, with his close interest in these matters, understands very well that the leads and lags in the procurement programme make it important not to change anything without all the background details against which decisions can be made. That is why we shall make sure that at all times we do not put at risk the security of this country.

Mr. Buchan : After the historic events of the past two or three months, is it not sad that the Conservative party is completely incapable of understanding or attempting to respond to them? Mr. Gorbachev has been taking enormous risks and is running into enormous danger. Due to his actions, the world can now be more hopeful. Does not the Secretary of State have a responsibility to respond? Can the Government not assist Mr. Gorbachev to face the dangers in which he has placed himself? His actions have been on behalf of humanity. For God's sake, act.

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Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman has a very suitable selective memory. Many of us have often seen him rise to his feet from the Opposition Benches to oppose the stand for freedom, justice and liberty in eastern Europe that we have taken. At the very time when the strength and unity of NATO has ensured the possibility of progress and freedom in Europe, I totally reject his intervention.

Hon. Members : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I shall hear the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan).

Mr. Buchan : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am accused on every occasion in the House of opposing freedom. That is a vile calumny and lie. It is disgraceful. The Secretary of State obviously did not listen to a word of what I said during our debates on the Official Secrets Act 1989. If anyone has argued continually in the House for freedom, it has been me and not the Minister. He should withdraw.

Hon. Members : Withdraw.

Mr. Speaker : Order. We often hear rough statements in the House, but I do not think that an attack has been made on the honour of the hon. Member for Paisley, South, whom the whole House respects.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members warmly support the Government's defence policy? Does he not agree that it is ludicrous to ask for a change in defence policy until we make progress on arms reductions with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries?

Mr. King : Throughout the years we have stood for the strong defence of our country and for freedom, democracy and dialogue. It is that which has achieved progress. It is monstrous for the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) to suggest that somehow we are holding up that process.

Mr. O'Neill : Will the Secretary of State be participating in the 35 -nation talks in Vienna next week, on doctrine and strategy? If he does not intend to participate in those talks, will his representative convey the need that is felt throughout the House and the country for genuine vision in Britain, taking account of the fact that the future order in Europe will be based not on the security of two blocs but on the security of 35 nations working together in one new grouping?

Mr. King : I shall be represented by the Chief of Defence Staff and the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff at the talks in Vienna. We shall continue to play a constructive role in trying to strengthen security and peace in Europe. We take some pride in the progress that has been made. Opposition Members complain about a lack of vision when we are achieving more progress, better understanding and a greater chance of peace than we have had in 40 years. We do not consider that that shows a lack of vision.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : As I initially supported the upgrading of short-range nuclear weapons in Germany, I ask my right hon. Friend carefully to reconsider this matter. Has he noticed the views of Lord Carrington and others that such a proposal is unrealistic in the present circumstances, bearing in mind the fact that those weapons will be pointing at East Germany?

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Mr. King : My hon. Friend is aware that at the NATO summit those matters were agreed under the comprehensive concept and it was decided that they should be reviewed in 1992. In view of the rapid rate of change and the developments that are taking place, that is an eminently sensible position to adopt.

Nuclear Submarines

7. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent consideration he has given to safe decommissioning of nuclear submarines.

Mr. Alan Clark : We continue actively to consider the safest way of disposing of decommissioned nuclear submarines.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the evidence which my Department gave to the Select Committee on Defence and which was published in its seventh report.

Mr. McFall : At least three options have been open to the Government, but they have taken none. Instead, they have produced the disingenuous fourth option--wait and see. Despite their prevarication, over the next 10 years at least eight nuclear submarines will be decommissioned, including Dreadnought. As the Defence Committee reported last year, additional submarines stored merely to corrode is no reflection on the Ministry's ability to deal with that long-term problem. Consequently, will the Minister give me a straight answer to a simple question?

Mr. Clark : In view of the concern expressed in the House and the questions asked by hon. Members before Christmas, I went to Rosyth and looked at HMS Dreadnought. I had conversations with the naval personnel concerned and I am entirely satisfied that there is no danger at present or in the long-term future in mooring that submarine or storing it in that way. During that time the radiation factor is minimal, and that will make it easier to consider the three options to which the hon. Member and the Select Committee referred.

Mr. Viggers : Does my hon. Friend agree that opponents of civil nuclear power tend to forget that the Royal Navy has been safely operating more than 20 pressurised water reactors for many years, which is a reflection on the safety of nuclear power as well as the superb standards of Royal Navy engineering?

Mr. Clark : Certainly, and it is those very standards of engineering and construction which make the present policy entirely safe.

Mr. Boyes : What is the Government's attitude to the London dumping convention's new ruling that the sea-dumping or burial of decommissioned nuclear submarines at sea is not permissible? Are the Government prepared to breach the London dumping convention's suggestion? Have the Government considered any land sites? Have they spoken to the Americans about the Hanford reservation in the United States? Is it not about time that the Minister made a comprehensive statement to the House on this matter?

Mr. Clark : Although sea disposal has not been excluded as an option, I am keenly aware of public concern here and in the international community about that solution.

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Mr. Sayeed : Is it correct that we have been unable to find a safe way of cutting up the reactor compartment of a submarine and burying it without exposing workers to a considerable radiological hazard? Is it correct that it is much safer for people for the reactor compartment to be encased in concrete and the submarine buried in a deep-sea pit?

Mr Clark : The reactor would not be cut up and the work force would not be exposed to radiation because we would take care to ensure that the exposure was kept to the minimum. The longer a submarine is stored in the mode that is currently used, the faster the radiation factor degrades. It will be simpler in future to dismantle the reactor compartment in the way that my hon. Friend said.


8. Mr. Lofthouse : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation frigate replacement for the nineties project.

Mr. Neubert : It remains our plan to procure an anti-air warfare escort ship to come into service at the turn of the century to replace the Royal Navy's type 42 destroyers. Following the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the NFR90 project, we are addressing how best to meet that requirement, including the possibility of alternative collaborative arrangements for parts of the programme.

Mr. Lofthouse : What was the Government's initial expenditure on NATO frigate replacement, and why did they withdraw from the project? Does he think that, whatever the costs were, it was a complete waste of taxpayers' money? Bearing that in mind, does he have plans to ensure that initial expenditure on future projects is kept to a minimum?

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