some default text...
  Home Page

Column 463

Sikorsky Helicopter Crash

3.30 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement following the crash of a British International helicopter in the North sea this morning on its way to the Brent Spar platform.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : A Sikorsky S-61 helicopter on charter to Shell UK from British International Helicopters crashed into the North sea in the Brent field at about 10.45 am today. The helicopter was on its way to the Brent Spar loading rig, 116 miles north-east of Lerwick, from an accommodation unit also in the Brent field. The helicopter came down alongside the rig itself. The cause is not yet known.

Thirteen persons are known to have been on board the helicopter. Seven have so far been rescued, of whom four are seriously injured. They are being taken to the Aberdeen royal infirmary, along with the other three less seriously injured survivors. The two crew and four other passengers are so far unaccounted for, but the search is continuing.

Two Shell search-and-rescue helicopters based in the Brent field were on the scene within minutes of the accident. They were joined by a coastguard helicopter based at Sumburgh and an RAF Nimrod. The rescue operations are being co-ordinated by the Aberdeen coastguards, assisted by the rescue co- ordination centre at Edinburgh. The wreckage of the aircraft has been located on the sea bed, in 400 ft of water. Specialist diving craft are on the scene. Shell and Grampian police have set up contact telephone lines for relatives at their Aberdeen emergency control rooms.

The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents has ordered a formal investigation.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing sympathy for the families of those injured and missing.

Mr. Bruce : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his full statement about this very unfortunate incident. May I extend on my own behalf, as constituency Member, and on behalf of my party and colleagues our sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives and to those who have been injured, apparently seriously. This is just another example of how risky a business it is to win oil from the North sea and of how thousands of people every day are putting their lives at risk on behalf of the whole community. We should be grateful to them for that.

I have a few specific questions for the Secretary of State relating to the incident. Does he acknowledge that a similar helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61, burst into flames and crashed into the North sea--fortunately, without loss of life--on 13 July 1988 and that we have not yet received the accident investigation report? It has apparently been delayed for administrative reasons. Does the Secretary of State accept that we should not have to wait so long? In the case of this incident, will he ensure that a report is prepared more speedily? Will he also ensure that a fatal accident inquiry is set in motion as quickly as possible? I understand that an inquiry has been called for by British International Helicopters. I believe that an inquiry will be welcomed by the whole community. Does he accept that


Column 464

such incidents show how important offshore safety must be in all operations in the North sea? Once again, we are extremely grateful to those who put their lives at risk.

Mr. Parkinson : As the hon. Gentleman knows, in my former job I went offshore to various platforms and rigs. I confirm what he says. We take for granted the work of people who produce great wealth for the country at some risk to themselves.

I shall look into the question about the air accident investigation branch report on the fatal accident two years ago. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the AAIB is a highly regarded body and it has been very busy recently. In particular, the Lockerbie investigation has taken up a tremendous amount of its time. However, I shall make sure that that report is issued as soon as possible.

The fatal accident inquiry is a matter not for me but for the Scottish legal authorities. I am sure that they will get on with making the necessary arrangements.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of safety in the North sea. The Department of Transport uniquely funds research into helicopter operations and safety in conjuction with the Department of Energy, the Civil Aviation Authority and the United Kingdom offshore operators. So we recognise the importance of safety and, above all, the importance of safety in helicopters, which are a key way of moving people about the North sea.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : At this moment, are there not only two things that matter--first, on behalf of the whole House, to express our deep sadness over the incident ; and, secondly, again on behalf of the whole House, to express our deepest sympathy to the families of those involved?

Mr. Parkinson : I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South) : May I, too, extend my sympathy to the families and friends of those involved in the incident? Since I heard about the incident, I have spent a great deal of time on the telephone talking to people from my constituency who work offshore or represent those who work ofshore. There is a genuine sense of anger today about the incident. It is the latest in a long line of such incidents. We have had 250 deaths in the North sea on offshore installations and vessels alone. There have been 74 deaths in helicopters, not counting any deaths arising out of today's incident. That is a shocking total.

I wish to raise one important specific point with the Secretary of State. I understand that a survey was carried out recently on the Kittiwake platform, which is going through the hook-up process. In that survey, 36 people were found not to have offshore survival certificates, which hitherto were regarded as mandatory. The Secretary of State will be aware from his experience that helicopter evacuation is an essential part of that training process. If the survey results are correct--again, it is a shocking indictment of the attitude of the oil companies to safety in the North sea--will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the question of offshore survival certificates is investigated as part of the process of investigating this incident?

Mr. Parkinson : The hon. Gentleman strikes a wrong note when he talks about increased helicopter accidents. There is no discernible trend of increase in the number of


Column 465

accidents in helicopters. I am sure that he is as pleased as I am that for the past three years there have been no fatal accidents. There were two bad tragedies in the mid-1980s, but the record has not worsened. It is misleading for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it has.

I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's point about Kittiwake. I cannot confirm what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy will look into the matter.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that all hon. Members whose Scottish constituencies have offshore workers will be saddened by today's accident. Does he agree that the investigation branch always does its work splendidly and thoroughly after such accidents, and that if anything is found during the investigation that requires immediate action it is dealt with immediately and all operators are instructed to implement the requirements? Does he agree that we should not require the full report before taking any necessary action to ensure that operations are safe?

Mr. Parkinson : Yes, the formal investigation that the chief inspector authorised is the highest priority investigation. The report will come forward in two stages. Any immediate lessons will be learned and information will be disseminated throughout the industry. In addition, a full report will follow, which will be published.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : As a Member of Parliament from north- east Scotland, may I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the sincere comments that other hon. Members have addressed to families who have lost members and the seriously injured? I also pay tribute to the rescue services, including the crew and staff of RAF Nimrod from my home town of Lossiemouth.

Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the time scale that he invisages for the report's production? We all wish to see it undertaken quickly because of its implications. Do the Government have a view about the type of insurance policy advocated for such companies? Surely one of the difficulties that the families of the deceased will face is that of finance.

Mr. Parkinson : I thank the hon. Lady for her opening remarks. The chief inspector will get on with the work and report as soon as possible. He sets his own timetable and wants to do the job thoroughly, which he will. I will convey to him the hon. Lady's views. I do not know about the insurance policies, but I shall find out and let the hon. Lady know.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside) : The all-party group on energy studies will visit Shell in Aberdeen during the recess and we shall be able to express our condolences direct to the people involved. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the S-61 is a good helicopter with a good accident record? Does he agree that, although the winning of oil and gas from the North sea is a risky business, travelling to and from the rigs is not necessarily the most risky part of it, and that the record in our sector compares favourably with that of the Norwegian sector?

Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the S-61 has a good safety record on the whole : there has been one fatal accident in S-61 operations in the past 10 years. We should not draw up a league table in the North


Column 466

sea between the Norwegians and us. We both want to do everything possible to avoid accidents, which operators on both sides of the North sea do.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : On behalf of myself and others, may I join in the expressions of sympathy for those who have suffered loss and serious injury in the accident, and pay tribute to the rescue services.

While I accept that it is impossible to make snap judgments on the information available, will the Secretary of State say whether weather was a factor at the time? Does he understand that the most urgent need is to determine whether the S-61 is similar to that which at one time suffered a spate of gearbox trouble? That must be determined as quickly as possible, and, if necessary, such helicopters will have to be grounded in the interests of the safety of people who continue to use them. Will he assure us that that will be done as quickly as possible because there will be great worry and concern among those people who have to fly over the North sea every day and their relatives?

Mr. Parkinson : I confirm that, although there was a little fog and cloud about in the North sea earlier today, visibility was about two miles. Therefore, visibility does not appear to have been a factor. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about snap judgments. The S-61 has a good record, but I shall ensure that the accident investigation branch is made aware of what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East) : May I join the Secretary of State and other hon. Members in offering our condolences and deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who are injured or missing, and yet again record our admiration for and thanks to the rescue services, on behalf of the survivors.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Sikorsky S-61 has been involved in three losses in the past two years and eight ditchings in the past 20 years ; and that, according to my information, a door fell off one yesterday? This anxiety is shared by many oil workers, and it is also highlighted in the Civil Aviation Authority's report, which the Secretary of State received yesterday. May I suggest that he reads that report about helicopter safety?

In the light of experience of inquiries, may I add my voice to those of others who have asked the right hon. Gentleman to press the Crown Office to ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in the fatal accident inquiry? As for the excellent aviation inspector's formal investigations, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that no extraordinary pressures are brought to bear, as happened in the case of the Boeing company over the loss of the Chinook helicopter in 1986, when the inspector's report was delayed by more than two years? That caused unnecessary anguish among the relatives of the 45 men who died in it.

Mr. Parkinson : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. It appears that, once again, the rescue services have performed superbly.

I repeat what I have already said about helicopter safety : in the past 10 years there has been one fatal accident involving an S-61, so there is no reason to make sweeping remarks about the aircraft. The hon. Gentleman should do nothing to suggest that he has made a snap


Column 467

judgment, which would cause unnecessary concern on the part of the relatives of those who are still working today in the North sea. As the hon. Gentleman heard me tell the House, the fatal accident inquiry is a matter not for me but for the Law Officers. I shall convey to them the fact that the House feels that the matter should be treated urgently. I cannot do more than that ; they must make their own arrangements, and I am sure that they will.

The accident investigation branch caries out its work, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) kindly said, in a most thorough way which has earned it worldwide recognition as the leading operator in this area. I am sure that it will do its job as thoroughly and quickly as possible.


Column 468

Defence (Options for Change)

3.47 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

In the defence debate last month, I set out the basis on which we have been considering options for change in defence. I would now like to advise the House of the broad proposals that we are considering and on which we will now be consulting with the NATO authorities and our allies, with the defence industries, and, most importantly, with all those directly affected in the armed forces and the MOD's civilian staff. My statement today follows the publication this morning of a valuable report from the Select Committee on Defence on the defence implications of recent events in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The declaration issued at the NATO summit meeting here in London earlier this month said :

"Europe has entered a new, promising era This alliance must and will adapt".

The "Options for Change" have identified the ways in which our forces might be restructured by the mid-1990s in the light of these developments. The pace of change will depend upon the signature and implementation of a Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, on the progress of the two-plus- four talks, and on how quickly Soviet troops leave eastern Europe and other Soviet forces are run down. The precise shape of our contributions to NATO must reflect discussions yet to come with the NATO authorities and with our allies. In the options for change studies, we have sought to devise a structure for our regular forces appropriate to the new security situation and meeting our essential peacetime operational needs. The framework that we have provided would be reinforced in a period of tension by drawing on volunteer reserves and reservists, who will have an important role to play. We have also allowed for the possible need to build back up our forces over a longer period should international circumstances ever require us to do so.

There clearly are opportunities but also risks in Europe ; and elsewhere some worrying trends--not least, the proliferation of sophisticated weapons systems. We shall therfore continue to need a robust defence capability as our insurance against the unexpected. Our armed forces, albeit at lower levels, will be as important a safeguard for our country in the future as they have been in the past.

Our proposals will bring savings and a reduction in the share of GDP taken by defence. We need force levels which we can afford and which can realistically be manned, given demographic pressures in the 1990s. The aim is smaller forces, better equipped, properly trained and housed, and well motivated. They will need to be flexible and mobile and able to contribute both in NATO and, if necessary, elsewhere.

What I now have to put before the House are some proposals for change and some elements that will not change.

We shall retain our strategic deterrent with a four-boat Trident force. In accordance with NATO policy for an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces, based in Europe, we shall also need a sub-strategic force of dual-capable Tornados with a stand-off missile.


Column 469

We must also continue to ensure the effective defence of the United Kingdom itself. A comprehensive air defence capability will still be essential, although with a smaller fighter force than had been planned. The United Kingdom fighter force would be held at seven squadrons of air-defence Tornados, supplemented by armed Hawks, and the remaining two Phantom squadrons would be withdrawn. We plan to retain at about present levels our home defence forces and our capability to deal with hostile mine-laying in home waters. We shall sustain our contribution in support of the police in Northern Ireland. For as long as they are needed, we will provide forces for our dependent territories and other overseas responsibilities in the Falklands, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Belize and-- until 1997--Hong Kong. We will continue to play our full part in the defence of Europe. We will continue to deploy forces in Germany alongside our German and other allies, a contribution which is, I know, warmly welcomed by the German Government. We envisage that, in the changed circumstances of the mid-1990s, our stationed forces could be roughly half their present strength. When reinforced from the United Kingdom, our Army contribution could comprise about two divisions, rather than four as at present. Our contribution will need to be shaped with that of our allies to fit the new force structures which we expect to see in the central region.

We expect to reduce the RAF presence in Germany from four bases to two. We envisage retaining Harrier and helicopter forces there. As Germany takes on the air-policing responsibility for its territory, we would envisage phasing out our air-defence contribution. We envisage maintaining six squadrons of Tornado aircraft in Germany and the United Kingdom with nuclear and conventional roles in Europe. The two variants of Tornado will provide the backbone of the future Royal Air Force. Aircraft not deployed in peacetime will be retained for use should we need to build back up our capability.

In view of Chancellor Kohl's request that troops of the three western powers should stay in Berlin as long as Soviet forces are in the present German Democratic Republic, we envisage continuing to contribute to an allied presence, including an RAF contingent, for this period in Berlin. We intend to retain an amphibious capability in the longer term, the role of which will include reinforcement of NATO's northern region. We shall also maintain an air contribution, to the defence of the northern region, but we are looking again at the future requirement for the United Kingdom mobile force. Elsewhere in our maritime contribution, we need to take account of the decline in the size of the Soviet navy but also of its continuing modernisation, especially with new classes of submarine. We propose to maintain three carriers, update their Sea Harrier aircraft and, subject to satisfactory progress, proceed with the EH101 helicopter programme. I envisage a future destroyer/frigate force of about 40 ships. The reduction would be achieved by paying off older, less capable ships. In addition to Trident, we envisage a future submarine force of about 16 boats of which three quarters would be nuclear powered. We see the Buccaneer force in the anti-ship role being replaced by dual-capable Tornados redeployed from Germany and re-equipped with Sea Eagle missiles. There would be a small reduction in Nimrod numbers.

A capability for other contingencies would be provided by establishing a strategic reserve division bringing


Column 470

together amphibious, parachute, airmobile and armoured formations with roles also in Europe or in national defence.

I have described how we now see the armed forces evolving in the period to 1995. These proposals are now for further study and consultation with NATO and or Brussels treaty partners. When we are able to take final decisions will depend on many factors, not least progress in the autumn on CFE talks, a successful outcome to the two-plus-four talks, a clear timetable for Soviet withdrawals from Europe, and the pace of discussions with our allies on the evolution of NATO strategy and operational concepts.

We shall want in particular fully to consult the German Government over changes in our deployments in Germany. We aim to move in an orderly and properly planned way to our new force structure, after the consultations that I have described and when the necessary conditions have been met. We shall at the same time conduct a detailed scrutiny of our equipment plans, including our research and development effort, to ensure that they would be in keeping with our changed requirements.

Work remains to be done on detailed force structures and on changes in the support area, where we will be looking for substantial savings, before we can clarify the implications for individual units. We envisage in broad terms by the mid-1990s a Regular Army of about 120, 000, Royal Navy/Royal Marines of about 60,000 and a Royal Air Force of about 75,000. On that basis, the overall reduction in regular service manpower would be about 18 per cent. We expect our civilian numbers to be similarly reduced. The volunteer reserves will continue to play a key role, and we wish to consider the appropriate numbers for the future, having regard to our needs and realistic levels of recruitment and retention.

There will now be further work on the detailed implications of these broad proposals. Their costs will, of course, be within the expenditure plans published in the last public expenditure White Paper. Revised figures for defence expenditure will be announced as part of the Government's decisions on the total public expenditure programme in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's autumn statement. In respect of the current year, the House is aware that I am taking steps to constrain expenditure within the agreed provision. Announcements have been made on aircraft. Consistent with our longer-term plans, we shall be easing back on Army recruiting and retiring early several ships and submarines, and making some other short-term changes to the programme which will be announced shortly. This country has owed a great debt to its armed services throughout its history. Their abilities and professionalism are not something that can be lightly discarded and then easily recalled when they may suddenly be needed. We have a duty to tell them what we believe the future is likely to hold for them at a time when the pace and scale of events in Europe offer real opportunities for change.

We believe that the new force structures that we envisage can give us strong and reliable defences, in changing circumstances, and at an affordable cost. Our proposals provide for us to continue to make a major contribution to the north Atlantic alliance as it adapts to the changes that its resolution and cohesion have done so much to make possible.


Column 471

It is a time of opportunity and hope for change, yet without putting at risk the safe protection of our country nor neglecting fair consideration of those whose task that is. Our aim is an orderly and planned transition to the new world now unfolding, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : The House welcomes the statement. For a while, it was uncertain whether we would have it before the House rose, and today was both the first and last possible time to have it. The statement is the first useful step in the consideration of our response to changing events. As the Secretary of State said, it dovetails with the report of the Select Committee on Defence. I am sure that the House will agree that many of the changes set out in the statement will come as a consequence of arms control and of Soviet withdrawals from Germany.

I realise that the statement was lengthy, and that many hon. Members wish to ask questions about it, but some points must be made. What significance does the withdrawal of two Army divisions have for equipment requirements, and in particular the orders for the replacement of the Challenger tanks? What implications will that have for the proposed multinational force? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his NATO allies about what form this will take?

The Secretary of State said that the two variants of Tornado will provide the backbone of the RAF. Where does this leave the European fighter aircraft programme? How many of the proposed nuclear-capable aircraft will be in Germany? Have the German Government been consulted about this? My understanding is that there is widespread reluctance within Germany to accept this nuclear-equipped aircraft and nuclear weapons. What is the basis for this hosting programme? I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the Select Committee on Defence has expressed considerable reservations about the tactical air-to-surface missile project. The House is entitled to know roughly what the costs of this programme will be and from where the weapons will be procured. Will they be American or

Franco-British?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is the first occasion on which he has recognised that there are Soviet naval reductions? On a number of occasions we have had lectures about the Soviet naval procurement programme. In the light of these reductions, and in the light of the reduction in our Navy to about 40 frigates, will there be a replacement for the type 42? There will be all-party relief at his remarks about the EH101 programme, about which there was great anxiety. His remarks will be taken as encouragement.

The significance of the announcements to service morale will not be lost on the House. In his statement, the Secretary of State suggests that there could be a reduction in recruitment, almost hinting at natural wastage as one of the solutions to the personnel problem. Will he confirm that natural wastage will not be the only method of securing reductions in troop numbers? Will he concede that it will be necessary to change the nature of service conditions and to attract to the services, for the new types of forces that he has recommended, a different breed of


Column 472

soldier who may well have to be paid more and who will certainly be looking for better conditions than those that have been suggested recently?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the absence of any reference to an extended out-of-area role is in line with the views expressed in the Select Committee's report? Will he also confirm that we are seeing here an operation that will be working within the existing limits of British capabilities and that we will not have an enhanced out-of-area capability?

The Secretary of State's proposals will require much consideration within the House and outside. A number of people involved in the defence industries and the services have made a great contribution to the defence of Britain and they must be taken account of at this time.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make the financial implications of the changes known to the House as soon as possible and ensure that we have an early debate when the House returns after the recess or as soon as the autumn statement is available, so that we can discern the economic consequences of the cuts? They will mean little to the House without a price tag attached to them.

Will the Secretary of State arrange perhaps a two-day debate in Government time as soon as the House resumes so that we can examine properly the implications of his useful contribution to what we regard as a process which will be far longer and more extensive than he described today.

Mr. King : The House must respect the hon. Gentleman's courage. He rose to his feet with hon. Members behind him who are pledged, under a Labour party conference motion, to slash defence expenditure by as much as £9,000 million, and then made a moving speech on behalf of the workers in Leeds who hope to provide tanks, the workers of Westland who hope to provide helicopters and the workers in Edinburgh and Lancashire who hope to produce the EFA. We hope that it will be possible to proceed on all those projects, and I note his great concern for their future.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that this is a first useful step in putting forward proposals in response to the changing circumstances. I suspect that only the Conservative party will put forward concrete proposals on the matter. We shall look forward with great interest to a coherent response from the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman referred to consultation in respect of the other proposals that I made. I sought to emphasise that I am putting forward a number of proposals on behalf of Her Majesty's Government in respect of our future defence structure which are precisely for consultation because we are determined to play our proper and full part in the NATO alliance.

The hon. Gentleman referred to TASM and the sub-strategic missiles with dual capable aircraft, but he will know that only this month the NATO summit here in London made the unanimous statement that there should be an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional weapons based in Europe, and my announcement is absolutely consistent with that.

I am not hinting at natural wastage. I regard the opportunity to ensure that we make a proper, orderly and planned change as a virtue. We hope to achieve that in a way that takes proper account of the lifetime of service that many have given. We want to make changes to the


Column 473

new structure in an orderly and planned way. That is a duty that we have to those in the armed forces, and it is one that the Government are determined to discharge.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is a major statement, and the House will be aware that there is another statement to follow and then the Report stage--for which 45 groups of amendments have been tabled--and Third Reading of a Bill. I regret that I must impose some limit, and so will allow questions on this statement to continue until 5 o'clock. I ask for single questions, please.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the Select Committee's report, which I hope is an analysis of the circumstances in which changes are taking place, and which I hope will be helpful to the House. I strongly recommend it as holiday reading.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the thoughtful way in which he has produced the proposals for change, which must now be debated extensively and discussed in detail. He rightly said that it is in the context of our NATO obligations that we will decide the final shape of our forces. How does he envisage NATO making its options for change known, and how does he envisage that developing as the collective response to the changed circumstances in western Europe?

Mr. King : Our allies have made certain statements. For example, Chancellor Kohl announced a figure of 370,000 for the Bundeswehr for a united Germany. Other NATO allies have also made proposals. It is now urgent that NATO gets together with the various elements and components to determine how that might develop.

I did not respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) about the concept of multinationality. There is the possibility of a multinational corps in which we could make a significant contribution. That is the way to go forward. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend, who is Chairman of the Select Committee, had to say and for the encouragement expressed in the report for the view that it is necessary to tell as soon as possible all those who work in the armed forces about the likely shape for the future. That is the purpose of my statement. I shall honour my pledge of a genuine opportunity for consultation so that the charges can be orderly and sensible, with the maximum involvement of those concerned.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : I welcome the broad thrust of the proposals as a first step for conventional forces. I support the right hon. Gentleman's proposal for a fleet of four Trident submarines. I hope that he will understand my disappointment that, as yet, no consideration has been given to the suggestion that the number of warheads to be deployed should be no greater than those presently deployed in the Polaris system.

The right hon. Gentleman should understand that there will be great disappointment about the suggestion that the United Kingdom might seek to deploy the tactical air-to-surface missile. There may be a NATO case for the deployment of that weapon, but thus far no compelling evidence has been produced to justify the United Kingdom embarking upon that course.


Column 474

Mr. King : I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's general welcome, even though he let himself down a little at the end of his remarks. The biggest waste of money conceivable would be to have a nuclear deterrent that was not credible and not effective. That is the base line. There is no point in having a deterrent if it is not likely to work and is not likely to provide the deterrent effect that we seek. The deterrent has proved to be the biggest life saver in the history of man, and we are determined to maintain that capability. That is my first point.

Secondly, our policy is absolutely clear in the sense that the background to my statement today is the success of the policy to which we have held over the years. Part of that is not to depend solely on a strategic nuclear deterrent but to have a sub-strategic nuclear deterrent. That of course has the unanimous agreement of NATO.

Mr. Michael Heseltine (Henley) : Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the caution with which he has made his statement today, both as to the size of the possible economies and the time scale within which they may be available, will be much welcomed on this side of the House? Will he continue to reaffirm that the reason why he is able to make his statement-- cautiously optimistic as it is--is precisely because this Government supported the policies of the NATO alliance, which brought about the reassessment of Soviet foreign policy, against continual opposition from the Labour party at every stage? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he sees the ever-increasing costs of weapons procurement within a constrained defence budget being met unless we recognise the need for ever- wider international co-operation in weapons procurement?

Mr. King : I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. The leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) as one of my predecessors, in standing firm at a critical moment in our history, is now viewed by many as the turning point that opened up the possibility of the wonderful changes that we have seen. One might have hoped that some of those lessons would at last be appreciated by some Labour Members.

We now begin an intensive period of examination of force structures, equipment programmes and support arrangements. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley made the point that our allies face similar challenges. I spoke to our major allies this afternoon, and they are considering at this moment the difficult challenges that confront them. We shall wherever possible examine taking advantage of co-operation and cost sharing in programmes.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent) : As far as I can see, the Secretary of State's statement makes no reference--any more than did his defence statement of a few weeks ago--to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, even though it comes up for possible renewal or may end in a few months. The Government must surely have a policy on that issue. Do not the Government understand that, especially in the light of the most welcome ending of the cold war, far and away the worst danger of the world being blown to pieces is the proliferation of nuclear weapons in other countries? If Defence Ministers in other parts of the world listen to the Secretary of State, it might be a recipe


Column 475

for the multiplication of their weapons. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what steps the Government will take to make the nuclear non-proliferation treaty truly effective?

Mr. King : The House will certainly hand to the right hon. Gentleman any award for consistency of position, no matter how consistently wrong that position has been. Our position has always been abundantly clear. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot distinguish the benefits that have come from our possession of a deterrent and the sensible maintenance of it, there is little that I can add to the length of previous debates.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his measured and orderly response to the challenge of the momentous events in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He will recall the disastrous effects of some of the cuts of the past--from the mindless disarmament talks in the 1930s to the more recent cuts that affected the Army's regimental system in the 1960s and 1970s. To help Army morale, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that we will not repeat the mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s?

Mr. King : I hoped in my statement to give a broad outline of our proposals. There have been some very worrying rumours suggesting that the reductions in the Army would be much more substantial, and the figure of 80,000 was quoted, implying that one in two people in the Army would lose their jobs. I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance about the numbers and the time scale.

The defence staff and the chiefs of staff have worked quite excellently on what I have been able to say today. We now want to widen the circle so that the individual services can also address the particular problems that they have to address and we can therefore have a wider involvement of people. That is the best way to achieve a more sensible outcome.

I do not conceal from the House the fact that we will have to face some very difficult decisions and problems. However, throughout the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence there is a recognition that this is an opportunity for change. If it can be a movement towards a smaller and better defence structure for our country, it is to be welcomed.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Is not this statement a case of no serious change and no significant savings? Are not the Government guilty of extreme cowardice in failing to face up to the opportunities for disarmament and so transfer resources from war to peace? Will not the consequences be a slowdown in world disarmament and an increase in arms proliferation as other countries quote Britain's military posture as a reason for their actions?

Mr. King : I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman talks to the leader of his party about his policy. However, he may have noticed that my statement today, in certain important respects, follows on from the outcome of the NATO summit. He may not have noticed that, when the Leader of the Opposition was in Washington and talking about developments in Europe and the NATO summit agreement, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was good to be alive. I am not sure whether that spirit has quite spread to the hon. Gentleman.


Next Section

  Home Page