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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 April 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Tay Road Bridge Order Confirmation Bill

Lords amendment agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions


Gulf War

1. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessments have been made of the efficiency of exotic conventional weapons by Britain and coalition forces in the Gulf war ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's question as I do not recognise the term "exotic" conventional weapons. I assure him that all aspects of the Gulf conflict are being investigated and assessed.

Mr. Flynn : I hope that I can enlighten the right hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that the fuel air explosive bomb, used for the first time by the Americans in conflict without prior consultation with Britain, has a blast as destructive as a nuclear weapon, is deadlier than chemical weapons, cannot be accurately targeted and was almost certainly responsible for the collateral extermination of thousands of Iraqi conscripts? Will he also confirm that the bomb is already in the possession of Saddam Hussein and other deranged tyrants and that it is on sale in the arms bazaars of the world? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm today--

Mr. Speaker : Briefly, please.

Mr. Flynn : --that he will press for the 1981 convention on inhumane weapons to be used to control the sale and use of fuel air explosives, daisy-cutter bombs and cluster bombs, which are not conventional weapons but exotic weapons--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is being unfair to his colleagues. That is enough.

Mr. Flynn rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is disgraceful.

Mr. Clark : Every single fact that the hon. Gentleman cited was wrong. Fuel air explosives were used by the United States only to clear minefields. I know that a number of Opposition Members, of whom the hon.

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Gentleman is presumably one, would prefer to fight all battles with loudhailers and food parcels, but that attitude is not shared by those who sit on this side of the House. Our purpose was to end the conflict as speedily as possible, with the minimum of British casualties.

Mr. Sayeed : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the troops down there were delighted by just how effective these very modern weapons were? It was a considerable surprise to many that they worked as effectively as they did.

Mr. Clark : It is perfectly true that the conflict was extremely effective. It provided a determinant test for a whole range of our equipment. The lessons are being assessed and will be of very great value.

Mr. Flynn : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Due to the unsatisfactory nature of the answer and the importance of the matter, I give notice that I shall seek to raise it on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

2. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the latest estimated total cost of (a) the war in the Gulf and (b) his Department's assistance to Kurdish refugees.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King) : The latest estimate for the additional defence costs of the Gulf conflict, to be spread over several years, is of the order of £2.5 billion. Contributions to these costs already made or pledged by other countries now exceed £2 billion. It is not yet possible to estimate the total cost of helping Kurdish refugees, but the full Ministry of Defence cost of aircraft, helicopters and 3 Commando Brigade, when deployed, will be at least £2 million a week.

Mrs. Mahon : Does the Minister accept that that is a shameful statistic? Why is it that the Government can respond so readily with massive resources for war, yet respond so inadequately to help the tragic Kurdish refugees in Iraq, Turkey and Iran and the Shias in the south?

Mr. King : The hon. Lady decided on her supplementary question before she listened to the answer. I said that the overwhelming cost of the Gulf conflict is being met by contributions from other nations, for which we are extremely grateful. If she were prepared to speak up for her country occasionally, she would recognise that of all the countries that have responded to the Kurdish problem she need not feel ashamed of or seek to criticise this country, whose contribution, in terms of forces, helicopters and the aid that we have given, compares very favourably with that of any other country.

Mrs. Mahon : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that the Minister should withdraw that disgraceful remark.

Mr. Ward : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Lady has once more demonstrated that she is more adept at criticising Britain than supporting it? Does he further agree that Britain has every reason to be proud of its contribution not only to the Gulf war, but to the relief operation for the Kurds? Are not the armed forces doing as much as the relief organisations?

Mr. King : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was trying to point out to the hon. Lady, as she would have heard had

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she listened to my answer, that I hoped that she would take pride in the contributions made by our airmen and helicopter pilots instead of leaping up to criticise their efforts. They come from her constituency as well. Why does not she speak up for the efforts that they are making to help alleviate a desperate and tragic situation in which all help is needed? I agree with her about one thing--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but I remind him that he is answering a question from his hon. Friend.

Mr. King : I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend in reinforcing the point that I was making to the hon. Lady.

Mr. O'Neill : In the light of the Secretary of State's point that the cost of the Gulf war will be somewhere in the region of £5 billion, why is it taking so long to produce the defence estimates this year? Will they incorporate the long-term costing overruns that have been reported in the press and are widely believed to be £21 billion over the next 10 years?

Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman is getting a bit muddled. He probably knows that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary has already confirmed that the defence estimate for this year is likely to be about £1.5 billion above its planned level. I have already had discussions with the Treasury about that. I have also made it clear to the House that it is vital that we learn the lessons of the events in the Gulf in carrying forward our plans. Before the summer recess I hope to publish the annual defence White Paper, in which I shall make clear the way ahead for "Options for Change".


3. Mr. Nicholas Winterton : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent meetings he has held with the aerospace industry about new generation missiles and on-going research.

Mr. Alan Clark : My ministerial colleagues and I have regular contacts with the aerospace industry at which a wide range of issues is discussed.

Mr. Winterton : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that brief reply. Does he accept that British Aerospace Dynamics has devoted many years and a great deal of money to the advanced short-range air-to-air missile project and makes a major contribution to the research and manufacturing base of our defence industries? Will he ensure that any decision that is likely to be taken by his Department bears that in mind so that the company can continue to make a major contribution to employment and to the health of the economy in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Clark : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We have corresponded on the subject and I pay tribute to the detailed knowledge with which he expresses his mastery of the topic. It is perfectly true that British Aerospace has done a considerable amount of what will prove to be valuable work on the advanced short-range air-to-air missile, which will be the successor to the Sidewinder missile and which the United Kingdom still judges to be an essential enhancement to our air fighting capability. However, as my hon. Friend also knows, the original collaborative programme formed under a

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memorandum of understanding with the United States has, effectively, collapsed and for that reason we must go through well-established procurement procedures and issue a new invitation to tender which I have done today. We await a response and I assume that British Aerospace will be among those responding.

Mr. Rogers : I was appalled at Ministers' answers to some of the earlier questions from my hon. Friends. We certainly do not need lessons in patriotism from the Conservative party.

Is the Minister of State aware of the substantial redundancies taking place in the aerospace industry? Does he realise that unless he stops dithering and makes some choices for "Options for Change", many highly skilled personnel in this country will be out of jobs?

Mr. Clark : It is, of course, a general truth that the reduction in defence spending worldwide has led to redundancies in certain specialised industries, nowhere more than in the United States. I regret the fact that some skilled craftsmen may face redundancy, but I believe that their skills will be such that they will not be redundant for very long. That has nothing to do with the "Options for Change" exercise, but is British Aerospace anticipating its commercial decisions and programme. In the fullness of time, "Options for Change" will set the pattern for development in future years.

Mr. Thurnham : Will my right hon. Friend confirm the outstanding importance of the missile industry in this country and bring forward purchase decisions wherever possible?

Mr. Clark : Bringing forward purchase decisions is subject also to resource and budgetary constraints. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the importance of the missile industry. I am fully aware of the fact that British Aerospace plays a key role in our indigenous missile capability.

Tornado F3

4. Mr. Menzies Campbell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the performance of the Tornado F3 aircraft in the Gulf war.

9. Mr. Mans : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the performance of the Foxhunter radar fitted to the Tornado F3 in the Gulf and elsewhere during the last nine months.

Mr. Alan Clark : During the period of the Gulf crisis, including hostilities, RAF Tornado F3 aircraft flew over 2,000 operational combat air patrol sorties and made a valuable contribution to coalition air defence forces. The performance of all aircraft and equipment used in the Gulf operation, including the F3 and the Foxhunter radar, is being evaluated.

Mr. Campbell : Does the Minister accept that his comments about the Royal Air Force will be particularly well received at RAF Leuchars in my constituency where 43 Squadron, which served with such distinction in the Gulf, is usually based? Has not the review of the performance of the F3 served only to underline the need for its supplement and eventual replacement by the European fighter aircraft? How confident is the Minister that the European fighter aircraft will reach the production

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stage? Is his confidence dented to any extent by the continuing uncertainty about Germany's participation in the production stage of the programme?

Mr. Clark : We are currently assessing studies into options for the future of the Tornado F3 and I hope to announce our conclusions shortly. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the House will be debating Royal Air Force matters on Thursday this week. There is a question on the prospects for EFA later on the Order Paper, but I am entirely confident that the aircraft will move into production investment and later into the production stage.

Mr. Mans : I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Does the Foxhunter radar meet the original specification laid down by the Royal Air Force?

Mr. Clark : Yes, the Foxhunter radar has already exceeded the original specification. In fact, there is an enhancement programme, which was originally intended to be complete in October this year, but which has been brought forward in respect of the aircraft operating in the Gulf. For that reason, it has not been uniformly faultless in its implementation, but considerable improvements have been made to the Foxhunter radar fitted to aircraft in the Gulf during the war.

Mr. Dalyell : Could the House of Commons have a polite answer to a polite question? What is the truth or otherwise of the reports coming out of Washington that the accuracy of the coalition bombing was nothing like what was claimed during the Gulf war? Are they true or false?

Mr. Clark : I hope that I am always polite to the hon. Gentleman, who is always very polite to me. The under-secretary-general of the United Nations, Mr. Ahtisaari, has conducted an investigation and written a report. The hon. Gentleman will probably not welcome his judgment that the strategic bombing was conducted with the highest accuracy. It was perfectly clear that every effort had been made to avoid civilian casualties.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the clear lessons to emerge from the Gulf war is the urgent need for an agile air superiority aircraft in battlefield conditions? The Royal Air Force has no such aircraft.

Mr. Clark : I would not go so far as to say that, because in many circumstances the Tornado F3 is an excellent aircraft. As my hon. Friend knows, it was designed to intercept Soviet bombers over the north Norway sea. There are many lessons to be drawn on air superiority, air domination and equipment and, as I have told the House several times, they are all being carefully investigated and assessed.

Mrs. Ray Michie : Having reviewed the performance of Tornados, will the Minister turn his attention to Buccaneer jets? A potentially catastrophic incident took place off the coast of my constituency yesterday, when a Buccaneer jet took evasive action and missed a ferry by only 40 ft. We accept that pilots must train, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong for them to do so along busy ferry lanes?

Mr. Clark : The hon. Lady is right to make that point on behalf of her constituents. We have the report, but all that I can tell her is that the incident is being looked into.

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European Fighter Aircraft

5. Mr. Dykes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the latest developments for the European fighter aircraft project.

Mr. Alan Clark : The European fighter aircraft development programme proceeds with the full support of all four partner nations. Work is progressing well on the prototype aircraft, the first of which is scheduled to fly in spring next year. Of the 285 airframe equipments, 235 have been selected on a competitive basis. The development of the engine is also proceeding satisfactorily.

Mr. Dykes : I thank the Minister for that reply and reassure him that, unlike the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), I shall not use the question to raise matters about the Tornado. I shall concentrate on the EFA. Subject to what my right hon. Friend may say in Thursday's debate, does he agree that the project is on course, that there is no question of the main partners withdrawing and that no fundamental problems remain with ancillary and related equipment?

Mr. Clark : I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. As he rightly said, this will probably be a subject on which further discussion will take place in Thursday's debate.

Mr. Strang : Is the Minister aware that, to some extent, his answer is a vindication of the Government's stand on GEC-Ferranti? As time goes on, the Royal Air Force's case for this plane becomes stronger, not weaker. Is not it fair to say that although a decision on ordering the plane will not be taken for some years, we should not assume that we need all the partners on board to make it a success, although that is the favoured option?

Mr. Clark : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks and for his support in the trying period when we were attempting to put together the GEC-Ferranti deal, with the concept of the EFA radar in the forefront of our minds. With one exception, whom I do not see in the Chamber, all Opposition Members who had a constituency interest were supportive and that played a significant role. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about proceeding even if all the other partners drop out. That would certainly be my instinct, but there is no denying that it would be extremely expensive. I do not think, I am glad to say, that there is any prospect of that having to be considered.

Wroughton Airfield

6. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future use by his Department of Wroughton airfield.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle) : The greater part of Wroughton airfield is owned by the Department of the Environment and occupied by the Science museum. On the Ministry of Defence-owned land around the perimeter, various support activities are undertaken by all three services and we have no present plans to change them.

Mr. Coombs : Is my hon. Friend aware that a recent survey conducted by Swindon chamber of industry and

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commerce showed widespread support for the development of a civilian air facility somewhere in the area? Will he bear that in mind when, with the Secretary of State for the Environment, he considers the future of Wroughton?

Mr. Carlisle : As I said, at present we have no plans to move any of our activities from the land that we still own around the perimeter at Wroughton. My hon. Friend has always argued that if we should ever leave, we should fully consult local interests about the best use of the land and we would, of course, do that.

The Gulf

7. Mr. Ron Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many units are currently engaged in the Gulf area ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Tom King : There are now some 6,000 service personnel in the Gulf area. An infantry battlegroup with supporting armour is in Kuwait. Further Army units in Saudi Arabia provide its support while organising the return of our equipment to Europe. A squadron of Tornado aircraft is currently based in Bahrain and one destroyer and two frigates continue to patrol the Gulf. Three Royal Navy mine counter-measures vessels and the Royal Engineers are continuing to participate in the international mine clearance operations in the northern Gulf and Kuwait itself. In addition, 20 British officers are serving with the United Nations observation mission, which will take full control of the demilitarised zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border tomorrow.

Mr. Brown : There is a problem about the new imperialism. Why should British troops remain in that part of the world? We must remember that the Security Council has not endorsed that action and that the lives of British troops are being put at risk. Surely the Kurdish problem should be resolved by all the countries in that area, because it goes wider than Iraq. This issue should be resolved through negotiation rather than confrontation. There must--I hope that there will--be a peaceful way out. What will the Minister and the Government do to achieve that aim? Previous Tory Governments have been involved in all sorts of problems in the Gulf area. It is about time that the issue of the Kurdish people was resolved because they have a right to independence.

Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman is now talking about something that was not in his original question. We have no wish to keep British troops in the Gulf in the long term. At the moment, we are there to ensure a safe handover to the United Nations observation mission which, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened to my answer, is due to take over tomorrow. Soon after that, I hope to see the withdrawal from Kuwait of both the American and our own forces.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major British contributions to the Gulf campaign was the tri-service co- operation, which was for the good of everybody in the area? Were not regulars, reservists and the Territorial Army able to work together with considerable force for the good of the area both now and in the future?

Mr. King : I certainly endorse that. The reservists, including my hon. Friend, played a valuable part. I need

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to check the figure, but I believe that some reservists are there at the moment, helping with the withdrawal and recovery of equipment from the Gulf and especially with transport.

Dr. Reid : Will the Secretary of State confirm that British soldiers of the Royal Engineers are to be effectively hired out to a private British company, putting their lives at risk in the dangerous task of locating minefields in Kuwait? Will he further confirm that in that cosy deal both the Royal Ordnance company and the MOD will receive substantial payments for the work, but that none of it will be passed on to the soldiers involved? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that we are disgracefully misusing our young soldiers if we subcontract them out as cheap labour--and perhaps as cheap lives--to a private, profit-making concern? Does he further realise that that shabby treatment in privatising the operations of our armed forces can do nothing but undermine the morale of our troops after their splendid and courageous efforts in the Gulf war?

Mr. King : That is a disgraceful distortion of what the Corps of Royal Engineers has been doing in Kuwait. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be aware that since the recovery and liberation of Kuwait, the Corps of Royal Engineers has done excellent work in giving humanitarian relief and in helping the Kuwaiti Government to make it possible for fuel, water and power supplies to be restored, and to remove booby traps from the plants involved. We thought, and the Kuwaiti Government thought it right, that if we were to continue this work, which we have been doing free of charge in a humanitarian cause, they should now pay for the services being provided. Royal Ordnance will be directly responsible for minefield clearance and our engineers will be involved only in locating, surveying and marking minefields. We have said that they will continue that work to enable Royal Ordnance to build up its team to take over. I have specifically insisted that the commander of the 21 EOD squadron should have sole responsibility for deciding on the spot what work shall or shall not be done.

Mr. Tredinnick : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern among the Gulf units because the £30 water allowance has been stopped? My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) tells me that that was in the personal gift of the King of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend agree to consider the problem as temperatures soar, to ensure that the troops have the water supplies that they need?

Mr. King : A problem arose in the first deployment of troops, but I was not aware that it had arisen more recently. However, I shall consider the issue to see whether it has arisen again.

Royal Naval Bases

8. Mr. Douglas : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the numbers currently employed at the royal naval bases.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle : There are currently about 26,000 service personnel and 16,000 civilian personnel employed at Her Majesty's naval bases. Those figures include

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personnel serving afloat in ships base ported at the naval bases and support units directly connected with the work of the bases.

Mr. Douglas : Will the Minister acknowledge that, while "Options for Change" will involve reductions in defence employment generally, and those reductions might be compensated by the private sector, any reductions in employment in the dockyards will be a matter for which his Ministry will be directly responsible? If Ministers make statements--albeit in their constituency capacity--that one naval base will not close, the repercussions on morale in other areas will be severe. Will he confirm that there will be no reduction in employment at Rosyth naval base without prior consultation with, and the approval of, the Scottish Office?

Mr. Carlisle : The hon. Gentleman has confused two different operations. There is a dockyard at Rosyth, which he mentioned in the first part of his question, and there is a naval base, which he mentioned in the second part. As we have said many times, no decisions have been taken on naval bases and we are considering the future of them all. In view of the smaller Navy envisaged under "Options for Change", it would be wrong not to do so. We shall consider all the relevant factors in reaching a decision.

Mr. David Martin : As my hon. Friend knows, when naval bases are mentioned, people think of Portsmouth. Will he assure me that the contribution made by the work force at the naval base in Portsmouth will be taken into account at all times and that there are no plans to shut the base, because there are rumours, which are sometimes stirred up by the Opposition?

Mr. Carlisle : As my hon. Friend will realise, under "Options for Change", the number of frigates and destroyers is being reduced from 50 to about 40. It would be a dereliction of duty if we did not seek savings at least as great on the support side. We are examining all naval bases, but I confirm that we have no plans to close the base in Portsmouth. As Devonport has also been mentioned, I must say that I deplore attempts by the Opposition to spread as much alarm and fright as possible about that, for purely political reasons. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has made the position absolutely clear : there are no plans to close Devonport.

Mr. Duffy : In any post-Gulf review of the fleet and corresponding support in the dockyards, whether that be achieved in the context of "Options for Change" or as a result of Treasury pressure, will the Minister and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement bear in mind that the last time such a review was undertaken, 10 years ago, it was necessary within a year or so to set in hand a most significant revision? Let us not get it wrong again.

Mr. Carlisle : The hon. Gentleman is right. We have to take very grave decisions. We shall consider all the factors most carefully.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was able to say, without the benefit of a study, that Devonport was not to close? Can my hon. Friend the Minister today set at rest the minds of my constituents in Portland, who have had the benefit of a study which shows that trying to move the

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facilities elsewhere would be too expensive? Can he announce today that there will be no closure at Portland naval base?

Mr. Carlisle : As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), under "Options for Change" we have to consider all the options open to us. No decisions have yet been taken and we have no plans to close the base at Portland.

Mr. O'Neill : Will the Under-Secretary confirm for the benefit of the House that no decisions have been taken to close Rosyth, Devonport or Portland? Therefore, what the Minister of State for Defence Procurement said yesterday is worthless and was simply an electioneering gimmick to try to hold on to Plymouth council for the Tories.

Mr. Carlisle : The hon. Gentleman is making a false allegation. We were dealing with unfounded rumours and scaremongering. As I said, we are considering all the options. No decisions have yet been made and we shall take those decisions with the greatest care.

Arms Trading

10. Ms. Ruddock : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about his Department's role in the trading of arms.

Mr. Alan Clark : The Department will continue to support the sales of British defence equipment and services overseas provided that they are compatible with our own security and broader political and humanitarian considerations.

Ms. Ruddock : Learning from the consequences of arming Saddam Hussein, will the Minister instruct the Defence Export Services Organisation to stop promoting sales among other Saddam Husseins around the world? Will he change his Department's policy and make clear what is lethal and non-lethal equipment and support the proposed United Nations arms transfer register? Finally

Mr. Speaker : Briefly please. This is wide of the original question.

Ms. Ruddock : Finally, will the Minister accept from me that, given continuing oppression in the Gulf, there is considerable revulsion among the British people about the staging of an international arms sale in Birmingham next month? Will he withdraw the Government's support for that event?

Mr. Clark : My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated in Luxembourg his full support for a United Nations arms transfer register. That is being pursued rigorously within the United Nations. To be fully effective, such a register would have to be universal and undiscriminatory. However, I remind the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) that the United Kingdom chairs the experts group in the United Nations, the purpose of which is to measure and to increase transparency in arms transfers. If the hon. Lady reflects on that, she will realise that considerable progress is being made.

Mr. Brazier : Is it not an uncomfortable fact that many extreme and unpleasant third-world regimes have enormous stocks of weaponry, and will continue to

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acquire them from the Soviet Union and from other sources over which we have no control? Would it not be a grave dereliction of duty if this country, or other western countries, were to cut off the supply of weapons to our allies, who may need them on occasion to defend themselves from those countries?

Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend is right. The basis of Britain's role is the right to self-defence, and that right is enshrined in article 51 of the United Nations charter.

Mr. Clelland : Is the Minister aware that our trade in arms will be severely and adversely affected if he does not order Challenger 2, as it is now clear that there are friendly nations who are interested in the equipment and are waiting to see what the British Government are going to do? Will he stop the unnecessary dithering and delay over the issue and tell us what his intentions are now?

Mr. Clark : I welcome the hon. Gentleman's attitude. I hope that, in the fullness of time, he will have a quiet word with the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford. I am certainly well aware of all the factors that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and they will be borne in mind as we consider the many different elements to which we must pay attention in coming to a decision on the future tank of the British Army.

New Zealand

11. Mr. Amos : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will meet the New Zealand Minister of Defence to discuss closer co-operation between the two countries ; and if he will make a statement.

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