The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : My Department was involved in procurement contracts with some 7,00United Kingdom companies in 1992. That figure excludes minor contracts placed by local establishments, details of which are not held centrally.
Ms. Eagle : Is it not the case that the decline in procurement volume due to "Options for Change" has led directly to the loss of 78,900 jobs since 1990, 900 of which were at Cammell Laird in Birkenhead which is currently facing closure? Will the Minister now pledge Government support for the creation of a defence diversification strategy in order to help convert those jobs to civil use, keep Cammell Laird open and ensure that we do not lose skills which are important to the British economy?
Mr. Aitken : I regret the loss of any defence jobs. The number of lost jobs since 1990 is approximately 40,000, considerably lower than the figure given by the hon. Lady. Like the hon. Lady, I lament the closure of Cammell Laird in her constituency because it has played a proud role in the history of British shipbuilding. However, it is not right for the Government to invent a diversification strategy. The owner of Cammell Laird, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited, is already diversifying into areas such as oil rig technology. Defence diversification is best left to companies, not Government quangos.
Mr. Trotter : I thank my hon. Friend for visiting Swan Hunter last week. His sympathetic and understanding remarks were well received by the representatives of the work force whom he met there. They were encouraged by his statement that the helicopter carrier had not been cancelled and that the tendering process was continuing in good faith. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he was impressed by what he saw of the management-work force team and the quality of their work on the four Royal Navy ships being built in the yard?
Column 770company. I can confirm that I was extremely impressed by the quality of the workmanship and the dedication of the work force. The landing platform helicopter project is still in our long-term costing. It is being reviewed in the light of defence resources, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the messages that he and the Swan Hunter work force gave me have been faithfully passed on throughout Whitehall.
Mr. Hutton : Is the Minister aware of the importance to many defence contractors of the batch 2 Trafalgar order? Can he confirm that that order remains part of the Government's programme and that it is his intention to replace all the Swiftsure class with the new batch 2 Trafalgars?
Mr. Aitken : I can confirm that the batch 2 Trafalgar project is in the long-term costing. All such projects depend on the availability of future defence resources, but I can confirm that it is in the programme. I fully understand its importance to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents at Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Limited. VSEL has recently executed a design study contract which we are now studying in considering the way forward.
Mr. Conway : Will my hon. Friend take the time to consider the effectiveness of the demountable rack off-loading and pick-up system--DROPS --the battlefield ammunition resupply carrier, during the Gulf conflict, which is a useful and essential piece of kit? Will he bear in mind the need for flexibility in his Department as the chill winds of recession are banging around the country and consider the long-term future of that particular carrier which is built in Shrewsbury and whose future may be in jeopardy?
Mr. Aitken : A question about DROPS appears later on the Order Paper. The DROPS medium ability vehicle that entered service with the British Army in 1990 has put up an impressive performance, especially in the Gulf campaign. Overseas customers have been particularly impressed and are interested in its progress.
Mr. Foulkes : Will the Minister clear up a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie? What is he up to in respect of the Upholder class submarines? Will they be sold to Canada? Do we not need diesel submarines any more? Will they be sold at their full cost of £800 million? Will the receipts be used for the helicopter carrier? Is that not another illustration of the muddle and confusion at the Ministry of Defence, which has no defence strategy because there has been no defence review?
Mr. Aitken : I think that my reply should be, elementary my dear Hercule Poirot. That project, like many others in the long-term costing, is currently under consideration by Ministers, and no decisions have been taken.
Mr. Viggers : Is it not a fact that the moderates on the Labour Benches are a minority in their party--a party which consistently votes at its annual conference to cut defence expenditure? Should not those who really believe in defence and procurement jobs place their trust in the party that puts defence at the top of its priorities?
Column 771Labour party, which calls for more jobs and orders and for a stronger defence policy in Westminster, but then, at its annual conference, votes for cuts of £6 billion in the defence budget. That is the theatre of the absurd, and it fools nobody ultimately.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : We continue to keep our defence policy as a whole under review, both with regard to the strategic situation and in respect of specific commitments.
Mr. Corbyn : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for a serious review of Britain's defence expenditure, which now totals more than £23 billion a year? Should not we cancel the nuclear missile programme and consign all nuclear missiles back to base as part of a programme of worldwide disarmament? Should not we try to cut conventional expenditure to at least the European average, which would save £6 billion a year? Should not we also ensure that skilled workers who are at present manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and other forms of armaments are put to making socially useful products, including materials for the health service and housing industry--and recognise that world peace is best achieved by people working for peace rather than by arming themselves for war?
Mr. Rifkind : It is good to hear the legitimate voice of the Labour party speaking without fear or favour, representing the views of the Labour party conference, and no doubt putting in even more eloquent form the words that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) would like to say but dare not.
Mr. Wilkinson : Will my right hon. and learned Friend re-examine the respective benefits of a static, costly and inflexible presence on the central front in Germany--subsidising in effect German jobs--as against the flexibility, mobility and fire power of the landing platform helicopter assault carrier, which can be sent anywhere in the world when required, either to preserve the peace or to intervene in case of war? Surely the benefits are to be found with the latter rather than the former.
Mr. Rifkind : We certainly recognise that priorities have changed, which is why the strength of the British Army of the Rhine, for example, is to be reduced from 60,000 men to 23,000 men, and the reason for a 50 per cent. reduction in our dual capable aircraft and other changes of that kind. My hon. Friend's general proposition is already well recognised and is built in to the plans and programmes that we currently have available.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does not the Secretary of State owe it to his own reputation, if not to the House, to show a little more intellectual rigour in the matter of a defence review? At a time when resources are falling, how will we be able properly to match commitments to resources unless there is a robust analysis of our commitments or there is likely to be? When the Chief Secretary to the
Column 772Treasury told the House a few weeks ago that it should be willing to think the unthinkable, did not that apply to defence as much as to health?
Mr. Rifkind : Of course it is desirable to look rigorously at each and every element of our defence policy. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman's yearning for a formal defence review appears to be based on the belief that such a review would provide a once-and-for-all assessment of our defence needs that would attract unanimous support. In fact, controversy would remain, many people would dismiss the review's conclusions as out of date as soon as the print had dried on the paper, and we should be left only with a considerable increase in uncertainty and instability.
Let me emphasise to the hon. and learned Gentleman that, although we must examine specific components on a continuing basis, the world changes from year to year. The idea that a defence review would somehow answer all the problems in a simple and straightforward way is naive and unrealistic.
Mr. Bill Walker : When conducting his regular on-going reviews, will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that, below a certain level, any outfit or organisation ceases to have a critical mass? Will he remember that the Royal Air Force has already carried out a one third reduction in its all-weather air defence capability and a 38 per cent. reduction in its long-range strike capability? Even in the current changing circumstances, it should not be a candidate for further reductions which are likely to cause it to fall below the level that will make it viable in future.
Mr. Rifkind : I properly attach great importance to the needs of the RAF. My hon. Friend should be reassured by the news that the RAF's single most important project--the Eurofighter 2000--is to continue, thus ensuring that the RAF will be able to cope with the responsibilities imposed on it for generations to come.
Dr. David Clark : In view of the story emanating from the Secretary of State's Department last week that the Royal Marines are to lose their landing capabilities, and this week's story that the Parachute Regiment would lose its parachutes, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us what daft scheme he has cooked up for this week? Has he thought how much money he could save by depriving the RAF of aircraft? Does not all the nonsense emanating from his Department prove our point about the need for a full-scale strategic defence review, so that the shape of British defence spending may actually match our defence needs?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is not at his most impressive when he relies on unattributed press rumours for his questions. He is well aware that those who call for formal defence reviews normally do so because they are scared of commiting themselves to any individual defence policy.
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, in January 1992, an Opposition Treasury spokesman said that defence cuts could arguably become the North sea oil of the 1990s? Does not that comment put in context many of the current criticisms
Mr. Taylor : The Minister will not be surprised to learn that, as a west country Liberal Democrat, I believe that Devonport has put forward the best bid. The real problem, however, is the extraordinary series of delays in the making of the announcement. Families--both those throughout Devon and Cornwall, who depend on Devonport, and those in Scotland, who depend on Rosyth--are being forced to wait with increasing uncertainty about their future. That has caused them all great difficulties. Can the Minister be a little more specific about when those people can expect a decision, and will he explain the series of delays that have taken place so far?
Mr. Aitken : I have sympathy for dockyard employees and their families : I know that the uncertainty is causing them concern. None the less, I think it a little churlish of the hon. Gentleman not to accept that a great deal of uncertainty was lifted by my right hon. and learned Friend's written answer on 9 February, when he made it clear that we were now planning to continue with two royal dockyards. We are therefore no longer in a life-or-death situation at either Devonport or Rosyth.
As for the timing of the announcement, we hope to be able to make it as soon as possible after the Easter recess. The first reason for the delays that have taken place so far is the need for us to be sure that we can accept the figures in the proposals as sound and certain, on behalf of the taxpayer. Secondly, new information has been coming in, not least from the dockyard managing companies themselves, and that new information has taken extra time to evaluate.
Mr. Streeter : Is my hon. Friend aware, none the less, that despite the assurances given some weeks ago that both dockyards would remain open, there is genuine concern in Plymouth and the far south-west about the delay? There is recognition that nuclear work is the jewel in the crown. Can my hon. Friend therefore assure me that this decision will be made as soon as is humanly possible? Is my hon. Friend further aware-- [Interruption.] Finally, is my hon. Friend aware that the Liberal Democrats' defence policy would scrap Trident and that there would be no choice
Mr. Aitken : It is perfectly fair for my hon. Friend to point out that a Liberal Government, if we were ever to have one, would have no Trident submarines to refit at all. Therefore, this is a highly academic question.
To answer my hon. Friend's principal point, I can confirm that we hope to make the announcement as soon as is humanly possible after the Easter recess.
Mr. Cohen : Will the Minister comment on reports that the United States is proposing to limit production of Trident missiles and that a Bill is already before Congress? Would that not increase enormously the unit cost, including the cost to Britain? The reports talk of a figure of £200 million extra. Would not that be an even greater waste of British taxpayers' money?
Mr. Aitken : I have to give the hon. Gentleman some news which I am sorry to say he will probably find disappointing--that he should not believe all that he reads in the morning newspapers. We have long been aware of the fact that the United States proposes to reduce the annual production rate of Trident D5 missiles. We are confident that there is no risk of a significant variation in United Kingdom missile costs as a result.
Mr. Aitken : The United Kingdom's first Trident submarine, Vanguard, completed her contractor's sea trials in January. The trials were highly successful, with all major systems and equipments performing well. This was a particularly impressive achievement for the first of a new class.
Mr. Marshall : Does my hon. Friend accept that that answer will be warmly welcomed by all those who recognise that the nuclear deterrent has kept the peace of the world for over 45 years? Does he also accept that that would not have happened if he had listened to the Labour party and to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) when he was a member of CND?
Mr. Aitken : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's trenchant support of the Trident programme which has been an enduring feature of our debates and of Question Time for many years. I agree entirely that we need an absolutely first-class independent nuclear deterrent system to take us ahead for the next 30 years. I agree, too, that the Conservative party is the only party which is able to provide such a system, in terms of its political will and commitment.
Mr. Cryer : What does the Minister say to people who argue that countries such as Canada, for example, will neither manufacture nor deploy nuclear weapons? Canada, under a Conservative Prime Minister and Government, and 150 other nations take the same view and have signed a solemn, international obligation to maintain a nuclear-free area. Does not what the Minister has said prejudice that treaty? Is it not terrible that a Minister can stand up at the Dispatch Box to support, to the cheers of his Back Benchers, a nuclear weapons system that involves mass extermination on an unprecedented scale? Is it not immoral for anyone to support such a policy?
Mr. Aitken : There are different views of morality from that held by the hon. Gentleman. I think that he was referring, in his rather sweeping assertions earlier, to the non-proliferation treaty and, in particular, to article 6. We accept that we must undertake to pursue negotiations on the cessation of the nuclear arms race in good faith and as early as possible, but we think that disarmament can be achieved only step by step in verifiable stages. We do not think that the time is right, in the present atmosphere of
Column 775strategic uncertainty, either to abandon our nuclear weapons or even to abandon the testing that keeps them safe and credible.
Mr. Nicholson : Despite the blase remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), my hon. Friend will be aware that many people in the south-west are concerned about employment in defence industries. He will also be aware that a number of my constituents work at Westland in Yeovil. The Government have spent £1.4 billion on developing the EH101 and have already ordered 44 Merlins for the Royal Navy, so why should there be a delay in placing the contracts for the 25 utility support helicopters for the Royal Air Force when the money for those was allocated by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Younger, in 1987?
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend's pride in the EH101 helicopter and its variants, and in the craftsmanship and skill achieved at Westland, in his constituency--or rather, where many of his constituents work--is entirely justified. But his impatience, although understandable, is not entirely justified, in view of the ministerial duty to achieve value for money on such a massive procurement project. The right course is to have a fair competition, and we intend to hold one as soon as possible for Britain's support helicopter requirements.
Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister recall a previous Conservative Secretary of State announcing to the House on 9 April 1987 that the Government intended to order 25 utility EH101 helicopters? In view of the desperate and dire shortage of helicopters in our armed forces, what has happened to that order?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise how much the world and the strategic environment has changed since 1987. For helicopters alone, we face a wider spread of less predictable scenarios, in terms of the distance that troops may have to cover, the equipment that they will carry, the terrain over which they will have to fly, and the nature and intensity of the air defence threat that they may face. It would be remiss of us not to take account of those changes in reassessing our support helicopter requirement. I am sorry that that has taken rather a long time.
6. Sir Michael Neubert : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next expects to meet the United States Secretary for Defence to discuss international obligations arising from United Nations commitments.
Mr. Rifkind : I expect to meet Les Aspin, the United States Defence Secretary, at the meeting between NATO Defence Ministers and those of the co-operation partners on 29 March. We will take this opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues.
Sir Michael Neubert : If the rather improbable patchwork quilt of a peace plan for Bosnia finds acceptance with all parties, will Her Majesty's Government contribute a contingent of troops to ensure its enforcement? Would it not be regrettable if one consequence of that were a further reduction in the number of Territorial Army battalions, and in our Reserve forces generally?
Mr. Rifkind : If a ceasefire is agreed between the various warring parties in Bosnia, the first and crucial test will be whether it is a genuine ceasefire, respected by the various factions on the ground. We have seen ceasefires in the past which have not in practice turned out to represent any change in circumstances.
The future of TA battalions is an important issue that must be considered on its merits. I assure my hon. Friend that any thoughts on that matter will be given the most careful consideration, because of the importance that we attach to the Reserves.
Mr. Byers : Does the Secretary of State accept that, in order to meet our international obligations within the United Nations, we shall need to maintain our amphibious capability and does he recognise that the helicopter carrier will have a vital role to play in ensuring that we can do so? Does he agree that that carrier, and the order for it, is vital not only for our future defence needs but to secure thousands of badly needed jobs in areas of high unemployment such as Tyneside?
Mr. Rifkind : We have an amphibious capability already, without the helicopter carrier ; the question is whether a carrier would provide a viable improvement in that capability. It is an expensive item and it is at present in the programme. We are considering that and other issues in the context of the overall resources available to the Ministry of Defence.
Sir Jerry Wiggin : Is not it a fact that in fulfilling United Nations commitments in Bosnia, British forces have stripped themselves of the last of their useful utility helicopters? We are desperately short of such helicopters, as the Select Committee on Defence has pointed out. Am I to understand from the previous answer that the Government are considering either the 23-year-old Chinook or the 30-year-old Puma designs as alternatives to the modern and up-to-date EH101?
Mr. Rifkind : We recognise that the helicopter is a most important and essential requirement for the armed forces in the 1990s and I assure my hon. Friend that we recognise that for the Army and other services to carry out their responsibilities, it is important that they should be provided with the number and type of helicopters necessary to deal with the likely challenges that they will face in the years to come.
Mr. John D. Taylor : Unless the Secretary of State is prepared to distance himself from the statement by the Secretary-General of the United Nations yesterday--that he will ask the United Nations to enforce a settlement if there is no peace settlement in Bosnia fairly soon--is not an urgent review of United States and United Kingdom defence requirements necessary?
Column 777a combat role to enforce peace in Bosnia. We are prepared to give serious consideration to the help that we could give if a genuine ceasefire were delivered on the ground in Bosnia, but any proposals for a combat role do not accord with the policy of Her Majesty's Government.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in the absence of a suitable command structure in the United Nations for the delivery of military and humanitarian missions throughout the world, NATO is uniquely well equipped to carry on its excellent work as a force for good in the world and to organise the delivery of such future missions?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is entirely correct. NATO is an institution and an organisation which has tremendous experience of co- operation between countries that are part of the alliance. It has very valuable assets which can be used in co-operation with the international community and I believe that it should always be willing to consider seriously requests for its assets to be made available, when the interests of international peace and stability could be advanced in that way.
Dr. Reid : Despite whatever differences we may have, all parties in the House have learnt one thing from our debates on defence--that any rational defence policy must be based on a match between resources and commitments. Is not it a sad fact that when the Secretary of State meets the United States Defence Secretary, he will have to explain to him, among other things, the fact that Britain, as a permanent member of the Security Council, was unable to deploy ground troops as part of the United Nations relief operation in Somalia? Is not it clear to the Secretary of State that our armed forces, especially the infantry, are still too overstretched? Does not he see that as an indictment of his presidency over the Ministry of Defence and of the way in which the non-review has been conducted?
Mr. Rifkind : I do not need to give any such explanation. The decision not to send ground forces to Somalia was not taken because of the absence of such forces. We could have sent a battalion if we had thought it appropriate. We decided that the best contribution that we could make to Somalia was with RAF Hercules. Our judgment was similar to that of the United States, which decided not to send ground forces to Bosnia--not because they did not have any such forces, but because they believed that there were other ways in which they could make a contribution.
Mr. Taylor : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there are still considerable uncertainties, on the fringe and out of area of NATO, especially in the Balkans, the Gulf and the southern areas of the Commonwealth of Independent States? In those circumstances is not it vital that NATO and the Western European Union should
Column 778work closely together, in case they need to be used to resolve or calm down those problems and should not we work closely with the French on such matters, through an integrated command structure, whoever might be the commanding officer?
Mr. Rifkind : I agree that it is desirable that NATO and the WEU should work closely together. However, we should work towards a situation in which one or other of those organisations makes a contribution in respect of the international community. I hope that we shall not have a repetition of the situation that occurred in the Adriatric, where both organisations were making provision simultaneously. That was an inadequate and unfortunate use of scarce resources of all the countries concerned.
Mr. Nicholas Brown : In an earlier answer to a Labour Member on out- of-area commitments, the Secretary of State seemed to disagree with an answer given previously by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to a Conservative Member, in respect of landing platform helicopter procurement. The Minister of State confirmed that the vessel has been reinstated in his Department's long-term costings. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will be ordered on time this autumn?
Mr. Rifkind : The proposal for a landing platform helicopter was never taken out of the programe. My hon. Friend and I have both said to the House, as we have done on previous occasions, that that project, with a whole range of others, has to be considered in the context of the long-term costings that we normally carry out at this time of the year.
Mr. Dickens : With the British armed forces dispersed throughout the world to meet our obligations under NATO and the United Nations, is not it clear to the House and the country that it is sheer common sense to have the Trident submarine cruising beneath the oceans of the world, ready to strike any aggressor towards the United Kingdom? Why do the Opposition, time and again, run down our defences? The Conservatives are the only party which would defend the realm.
Mr. Rifkind : It is indeed the case that the stalwart defence policy that Conservative Governments have pursued over the years, despite the bitter opposition of the Labour party, has made an important contribution to the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the end of the cold war and the resulting enhanced security for the people of this island.
8. Mr. Austin Mitchell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are his estimates of the total annual cost of British forces in Germany for each year from 1990 to 1995 and the proportion of that covered by offsetting arrangements.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : The total cost of the British Army of the Rhine and RAF Germany for 1991-92 was £1,966 million and our estimates for 1992-93 and 1993-94 are £1,706 million and £1,543 million respectively. As a result of changes in budgetary procedures, there is no directly comparable figure for 1989-90 or 1990-91. While no direct offset payments have been made by the Federal Republic of
Column 779Germany since 1980, the German Government make a substantial contribution to the upkeep of our forces, mainly through the provision of rent-free land and accommodation.
Mr. Mitchell : Why do not the Government come clean about their intentions concerning our commitment in Germany? What is the strategic justification for having our troops there at all? What role are they to play in the future? Why do not the Government tell us how they justify the necessary budget provision? Does not the lack of information prove that we need a full review of our defence commitment, instead of day-to-day improvising by the Government?
Mr. Hamilton : The strategic justification for the Rhine Army and, indeed, for the support of the Royal Air Force in Germany is that these forces are our contribution to the rapid reaction corps, which is at the heart of NATO. We consider that the future security of these islands and of Europe as a whole lies in maintaining NATO, the Atlantic alliance, with American involvement in the defence of Europe.
Mr. Brazier : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in considering these costs, it is essential that we do not have a repetition of the 1920s, when American and British forces were withdrawn from the continent of Europe at a time when that continent was moving into political instability? Does he agree that, against that background, the best possible aspect of our conventional forces is our commitment to mainland Europe?
Mr. Hamilton : That is absolutely correct. We can never divorce the security of the United Kingdom from that of Europe as a whole. Indeed, it is very difficult to make it clear to the United States of America that we want to see that country involved in the defence of Europe and playing a role in our future defence requirements if we are to withdraw our troops from Germany, which is right at the heart of NATO.
9. Mr. Campbell-Savours : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with representatives of the Government of the United States of America on the use of military equipment in Bosnia.
Mr. Rifkind : Both bilaterally and at the United Nations and in other international forums, I and my officials have had many discussions with representatives of the United States Government about developments in Bosnia and about the current operations there under the auspices of the United Nations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Has President Clinton totally ruled out the use of military force in Bosnia to end the ethnic cleansing? Equally, has the United Kingdom totally ruled out the use of military force?
Mr. Rifkind : The United States Government have said that they are prepared to consider making a contribution with regard to the implementation of any ceasefire that might be agreed between the parties in Bosnia. They have not yet said explicitly whether that involves the deployment of ground forces. As for the United Kingdom, as I said in answer to an earlier question, there is no
Column 780possibility of our providing ground forces for a combat role in Bosnia. We are prepared to consider what contributions we may make in the event of an effective ceasefire being implemented and seen to be working on the ground.
Mr. Robert Banks : On the possible deployment of American, and more especially NATO, peacekeeping ground forces in Bosnia, will my right hon. and learned Friend exercise great caution bearing in mind the fact that peacekeeping ground forces can be tied down for many years? There are heavy costs involved. Is not it better for such peacekeeping to be done under the auspices of the United Nations, given the wider compilation of forces that it can deploy?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is entirely correct to urge caution with regard to any deployment of United Kingdom forces to the former Yugoslavia. I believe that it is also the case that the United Nations should be the sponsoring body for any initiative of this kind. It has been the experience in many previous United Nations operations that an initial commitment can have implications for years to come.
I believe that the time has arrived for the United Nations to consider rotating its forces to carry out its obligations in various theatres around the world. There should no longer be an assumption in any part of the world that countries that contribute to a United Nations operation should continue to contribute as long as the United Nations is present in that particular territory.