Considered ; to be read the Third time.
Read a Second, time and committed.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : The new helicopter carrier will significantly enhance the Royal Navy's amphibious capabilities. It will give an amphibious task force the helicopter support needed to deploy or reinforce troops quickly.
Mr. Robinson : The decision to award the contract is widely welcomed. Does my hon. Friend agree that the new helicopter platform ship will serve as a pad for the new EH101 helicopter when it comes into service? Will he encourage the Royal Air Force to follow the lead of the Royal Navy and place orders for the helicopter which will do so much to safeguard jobs in the defence industry in the south-west?
Mr. Aitken : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the important order which will indeed enhance our defence capabilities for many years to come. What helicopters will fly from it must depend on the outcome of current studies into the support helicopter requirements. However, I am well aware of my hon. Friend's and many others' strong support and enthusiasm for the EH101. I very much hope that, if the price is right, it may turn out to be our choice, just as the Merlin version was our choice for the Royal Navy.
Mr. Hutton : I welcome the Government's decision to place a contract for the new helicopter carrier with Vickers Shipbuilders and Engineering Ltd. in my constituency, but will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that, if the Royal Navy is to have a fully effective and operational
Column 154amphibious capability, the Government will need to place further orders for the replacement for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid? When will those orders be placed?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman is correct. If we are to have a proper amphibious warfare capability, we shall need additional amphibious shipping to go with the LPH in the longer term. I know that his constituents will be delighted that the LPH order has gone to VSEL in his constituency. As for the landing platform dock replacements, I can tell him that project definition studies into the replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid are being undertaken now. The timing of an order will be subject to the successful outcome of the project definition phase and the subsequent tender process.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : Such weapons are possessed by Russia, China, France and the United States. Some weapons are also possessed by Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, but these are controlled by the Commonwealth of Indpendent States.
Mr. Evans : Is the Minister aware that the list is growing ever longer, with the Ukraine selling missiles to whoever is prepared to pay for them? Does not that mean that this country's safety is threatened even more? Does he agree it is important that the Walworth road is protected because we want our children and grandchildren not only to read about the demise of socialism in libraries and schools but to be able to go down the Walworth road to see for themselves where the last of the Bolsheviks lived and worked? Does he agree that the Walworth road should be a nuclear-free zone because the safety of that lot is in our interests?
Mr. Hanley : I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend that all tactical nuclear weapons have been withdrawn from the Ukraine and, as I said, strategic weapons are not under its control. I am sure you will agree, Madam Speaker, that it is just possible that if we had four seagoing versions of my hon. Friend, we would probably need no other equipment. However, in the absence of three clones of my hon. Friend, I think we perhaps need to maintain our minimum deterrent.
Mr. McAllion : Will the Minister now list all the countries in the world that can be hit by nuclear weapons? Does he accept that, if Britain argues that nuclear deterrence is essential for our defence, so can the Government of every other country in the world? Is not the logic of the Government's position that the entire world should now embark on a policy of nuclear expansion, because there is no other defence against countries that have nuclear weapons?
Mr. Hanley : Updating our minimum deterrent is entirely consistent with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Furthermore, I would say that we have adhered closely to our responsibilities. After all, in recent years, the United Kingdom has cut its RAF nuclear
Column 155strike squadrons from 11 to eight ; we have given up nuclear artillery and Lance missile roles ; we have announced a reduction of more than half in the WE177 bomb stockpile ; and on 15 June last year, we announced the elimination of our maritime tactical nuclear weapon capability--in that area, we have felt able to go further than other nuclear powers. I believe that our record is good, but, for the safety of the world, we need to maintain our minimum nuclear deterrent.
Mr. Fabricant : Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need a sub- strategic nuclear weapon? Does he not believe that for a deterrent to be effective, people such as Saddam Hussein have to believe that, if they use nuclear weapons, we have something with which to strike back?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right. The Government have been examining a range of options for providing the United Kingdom's long-term sub-strategic capability, and we expect to be in a position to make our intentions clear in the near future.
Dr. David Clark : Does not the Minister accept that one of the surest ways to reduce the threat of any nuclear attack on Britain is to limit the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons by ensuring that the non-proliferation treaty is renewed? The Secretary of State acknowledged to me in a letter dated 14 June that various signatories to the non-proliferation treaty see a direct link between its renewal and progress on a comprehensive test ban treaty. Bearing that in mind, will Britain now join France, Russia and the United States in supporting a moratorium on nuclear testing?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman well knows why we believe that nuclear testing is possibly desirable : it maintains both our credibility and the safety of our nuclear stockpile. The matter is being discussed in the United States, perhaps at this very moment, and I believe that the President knows our views.
I have already said that we are fully signed up to the long-term aims of the non-proliferation treaty, and we have made great progress ourselves. We are therefore ensuring that our position of strength helps to encourage other countries not to possess nuclear weapons, and we are taking great pains to ensure that countries do not possess nuclear weapons of any sort.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Over the past decade, my Department has received a number of representations on defence spending levels from hon. Members and from members of the public.
Mr. Oppenheim : Bearing in mind the fact that many of those who, at the height of the cold war, urged us to abandon nuclear weapons as immoral and to slash defence spending have apparently come to the conclusion, now that the cold war is over, that we need nuclear weapons after all, that we must save every regiment and even bomb Serbia, and bearing in mind the fact that the leading politician who opposed Trident as militarily unacceptable
Column 156is now lobbying for Trident refit work in his constituency, does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that that represents a genuine change of heart, or is it the usual unholy mixture of hyprocisy, opportunism, and pork-barrel politics?
Mr. Rifkind : It is certainly one of the lasting mysteries about the Opposition that they were unable to support our nuclear deterrent during the cold war, but that they claim that Trident will be safe in their hands now, when the Soviet Union no longer exists.
Mr. Nicholas Brown : The Secretary of State is currently spending money completing three type 23 frigates at Swan Hunter on Tyneside. Will he now give an assurance that those three frigates will be finished on Tyneside by the work force at Swan Hunter, under the control of the existing management?
Mr. Rifkind : We have said that we very much hope that it will be possible to complete the frigates at Swan Hunter. I am cautiously optimistic that that will indeed prove possible, but the discussions that are taking place are not yet complete.
Mr. John Greenway : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that all those people working in the defence industries and in our armed forces should be glad that the Conservative party won the election last year and not either of the rabbles opposite--one of which proposes a cut in spending of 6 per cent. and the other a cut of 50 per cent? Will he assure the many MOD and armed forces personnel working in North Yorkshire that, so long as this Government remain in power, our commitment to a strong defence of Britain remains totally in place?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that both the Labour party and the Liberal party are committed, by their party conferences, to massive reductions in defence expenditure. Indeed, I understand that the Liberal party is committed to reducing the size of our Army from 160,000 to approximately 70,000. That compares rather unfavourably with the view of the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North- East (Mr. Campbell), who seeks to oppose any amalgamations during the current exercise.
Mr. Rifkind : British forces continue to make an important contribution to the United Nations humanitarian relief effort in Bosnia, having successfully escorted over 42,000 tonnes of aid since operations began. The events of recent weeks in central Bosnia have demonstrated the dangerous conditions under which our troops are working, and, as I am sure the House will agree, they have reacted to circumstances with outstanding professionalism.
Mr. Winnick : I agree with the latter part of the Secretary of State's response : there is undoubtedly much admiration in the House and in the country for the way in which British forces have operated in the former Yugoslavia.
Column 157However, would there not be a case for the rules of engagement to be changed--obviously that would have to be done by the Security Council--so that allied troops could assist civilians fleeing terror and destruction? Is it not the case--this is no reflection on the Secretary of State--that, to a large extent, even humanitarian relief often depends on Serbian and Croatian commanders, who are carrying out what can only be described as a murderous pogrom against the Muslim population in Bosnia?
Mr. Rifkind : We do not believe that the current rules of engagement need to be changed to assist the United Nations in its humanitarian efforts. Clearly, if a new mandate were to be considered for United Nations personnel, that would open up the question whether the rules of engagement were appropriate. However, it is crucial to emphasise that we do not consider it sensible or desirable that the United Nations should be asked to adopt a combat role in Bosnia. United Nations personnel are doing a superb job, saving many tens of thousands of lives at present. That in itself is justification for their presence.
Mr. Cormack : Is my right hon. and learned Friend confident that the rules of engagement are sufficient to protect the safe havens which the United Nations has declared should be safe havens? Are they truly safe, or can they be made truly safe, for the civilian population?
Mr. Rifkind : The Secretary-General is at present seeking to put together a number of forces from various contributors who would be present within the safe havens. The United Kingdom has said that its contribution will be to continue to help deal with the situation in the Vitez area in central Bosnia, where there is tremendous tension between Croats and Muslims. We believe that the current rules of engagement are suitable for the task that British forces have been asked to do.
Dr. David Clark : Does the Secretary of State recall that, on 14 January, when announcing the deployment of our naval task force in the Adriatic, he said that his overriding concern was for the safety of our forces, and added :--
"the provision of artillery in particular"--
"will enable us to respond to attacks"?--[ Official Report, 14 January 1993 ; Vol. 216, c. 1058.]
Will he now confirm that at, the very time when our troops in Bosnia are, in the Secretary of State's words, "facing the greatest risk", he has withdrawn the RFA Argus, which is loaded with the same artillery? Does he accept that his meek surrender to Treasury penny-pinching could well put our troops in Bosnia at risk?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman gets sillier as every day passes. As the decision to transfer the artillery back to the United Kingdom was taken on the advice of the Chief of the General Staff and not at the request of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he might have chosen to check his facts before making such a fool of himself.
Lady Olga Maitland : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not only the soldiers escorting the convoys that come under shellfire and sniping but also the civilian truck drivers, who are sent out to Bosnia by the Crown Agents based in my constituency? Four truck drivers have now been awarded the MBE in the Queen's
Column 158birthday honours. Would my right hon. and learned Friend extend to them the same tributes that we have extended to our soldiers?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the remarkable contribution that has been made not only by uniformed personnel but by many thousands of civilians--including many British citizens--who have done a superb job, often in the most dangerous and difficult circumstances, to provide food, medical aid and other forms of assistance to people who so desperately need them.
Mr. Evans : Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the excellent role played by Britain's superb forces in the former Yugoslavia shows that Britain's future military role will increasingly be as part of a United Nations peacekeeping or even peacemaking force? In view of that, is it not time that the Government recognised that, in future, there will be little demand from the United Nations peacekeepers for crippling expensive submarines and nuclear weapons?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman would be very unwise to believe that Britain's future military requirements will be limited to some form of gendarmerie role on behalf of the United Nations. Of course our contribution to that role is important, but we must retain the capacity for high-intensity conflict, because, as we have seen twice in the past 12 years, there could be attacks on British interests which require a response not only with manpower but with sophisticated equipment. Submarines have played a very viable role for the United Kingdom over the years.
Mr. Allason : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, during the past two years, Britain's defence commitments have increased, not decreased, and that there is a good argument for a general review of Britain's defence commitments around the world to ensure a direct match of commitments and resources?
Mr. Rifkind : I accept the principle that my hon. Friend has enunciated, but I do not accept his description of what has happened over the past three years. The single biggest change over that period has been the reduction of our forces in Germany from 60,000 to about 30,000. That is a far greater reduction in our commitment than any relatively modest contribution we have made in Bosnia, Cambodia and one or two other territories elsewhere.
Rev. Martin Smyth : In the light of our experience in Bosnia, is there not a case for putting the United Nations interventionist role on a formal footing, with financial backing, in properly established headquarters? If so, who would be prepared to pay, given that the major contributing nations are in an adverse financial position?
Mr. Rifkind : If the hon. Gentleman is referring to proper military headquarters in New York to ensure that the United Nations can properly co- ordinate and plan the substantially increased number of military operations for which it is responsible, he makes an important point. The large increase in United Nations activities means that the small staff at present responsible for those matters find it almost impossible to carry out their responsibilities in a proper and coherent fashion.
6. Mr. Richards : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what progress is being made in equipping AFVs deployed in Bosnia with state-of- the-art surveillance systems to counter threats of ambush ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Hanley : The armoured vehicles deployed in Bosnia are already fitted with sophisticated surveillance systems, but we keep the situation under review to ensure that the personnel deployed have the equipment most appropriate to their role and environmental conditions.
Mr. Richards : Is my hon. Friend aware that Pilkington Optronics in my constituency designed and fitted the thermal observation and gunnery sight--TOGS--to the Chieftain and Challenger tanks, which performed so well in the Gulf war? Is he further aware that Pilkington has offered to fit the TOGS system to the Scimitar AFV, which is currently deployed in Bosnia, at a very reasonable price?
Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend ; any saving is helpful. The TOGS proposal is one of the ideas considered as part of the life-extension programme for tracked combat reconnaissance vehicles. We already have very sophisticated equipment in them, including thermal image sights, which can be fitted on top of the commander's sight. Troops are also issued with image intensifying night vision goggles. The Scimitar family of vehicles will be upgraded in due course.
7. Mr. Tyler : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what examination he has made of the decision-taking process on the Trident refitting contract with a view to improving the consistency and orderliness of such processes.
Mr. Rifkind : The issues involved are complex, and involve significant sums of public money. A wide range of factors bear on the issues, and I am satisfied that the assessment is being properly conducted.
Mr. Tyler : Is that not the most extraordinarily complacent reply? It is 13 months since the bids had to be in from the two yards. Before Christmas, the Minister of State told me from the Dispatch Box that the decision would be out in a matter of days, perhaps weeks. The loyal work forces at Rosyth and Devonport have waited patiently for months. They are on tenterhooks--their livelihoods are at stake and their families do not know what will happen. The whole economy of that area of Scotland and the south-west of England has been waiting for this hide-and-seek game to end.
Column 160taking to reach the proper conclusion. That time has already resulted in savings to the taxpayer and the Royal Navy that are likely to be in excess of £250 million, compared to what the original cost of the nuclear refitting was expected to be. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Royal Navy will benefit substantially from those savings, so it is right and proper that we should address those matters in that way.
Mr. Streeter : As someone who has always supported Trident, may I ask whether my right hon. and learned Friend is aware that the delay in awarding the contract is seriously undermining the morale of my constituents, and holding back the recovery that would otherwise be bursting forth in the south-west? Is he aware of what the people of Rosyth and Plymouth are going through while we await the decision? When will it be made?
Mr. Rifkind : I appreciate the points made by my hon. Friend. He will appreciate that the two companies involved--one in Plymouth and one in Rosyth--have, over the past six months, sent several refinements of their proposals, which inevitably have required time for consideration. Ministers are now considering the conclusions that should be reached, and I hope that an announcement can be made in the near future. It is important that the matters are properly addressed. I am anxious, as is my hon. Friend, to bring the uncertainty to an end.
Mr. Foulkes : The Secretary of State must realise that it is now over four months since he announced in a written answer that he planned to continue with two dockyards, but without saying how that would be achieved. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) rightly said, that is causing dismay and increasing division between Scotland and the south-west of England.
Can the Secretary of State at least say, first, that he will continue a submarine refitting capability at both yards and, secondly, that the yard that does not get the Trident refit will get at least 10 years' guarantee of submarine and surface refitting? It is in the strategic and employment interests of the United Kingdom to keep both yards fully operational.
Mr. Rifkind : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman shares our desire to see a decision on this matter, which hopefully will be possible. I simply do not believe that it is possible to continue nuclear submarine refitting at both yards. The cost of the Trident work is so substantial that the expenditure required to provide a nuclear submarine refitting capability at both yards would be a gross waste of public funds, and I cannot endorse the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.
Mr. Gallie : Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm the wisdom of the last four Conservative Secretaries of State for Defence, who assured Rosyth's future based on the successful achievements in the refitting and servicing of Britain's nuclear deterrent fleet?
Mr. Rifkind : Both Rosyth's and Devonport's future are assured, because some time ago we said that, in the interests of ensuring competition and therefore the best benefit to the taxpayer, we proposed to continue with two royal dockyards. I know that that will give great pleasure not only to my hon. Friend but to those who are anxious
Column 161to ensure that the taxpayer and the Royal Navy get the most competitive bids not only for its submarine work but for its surface ship work.
Mr. Aitken : The development stage of Eurofighter 2000 will largely be completed by 1995, when the production stage is due to begin. However, as is usual with new aircraft, some development activity will continue into the early years of production. It is expected that the final phase of the development stage will be completed in 2001.
Mr. Ainsworth : Is the Minister aware of the consternation that was caused in the industry when he announced the delays in the programme on 25 February? Will he give the House an explanation of the escalation of the costs that was announced then? How much of that escalation was caused by his Department's late changes to the specification?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman is being somewhat unfair and churlish. The real increase in development costs since we committed ourselves to this phase in 1988 is a little more than 10 per cent. For the project as a whole, it is a little less than 10 per cent. Production costs are all hypothetical at this stage, but a 10 per cent. increase in a project of this complexity and magnitude, although not welcome, is by no means unusual. It is within the normal tolerances. As for the hon. Gentleman's points about delays, those are matters caused by some of the industrial decisions--not Government decisions. The Government could not have done more to support the project whole-heartedly and effectively.
Mr. Martlew : Is not it a fact that 10 per cent. represents £250 million, which will have to come from somewhere else in the defence estimates? Yesterday, the Minister gave us an assurance that the Eurofighter would make its test flight this year. We welcome that. But he was vague on how the work would be shared out between the countries. It looks as if the Royal Air Force will place orders for 50 per cent. of the production. Does that mean that 50 per cent. of the work will be carried out in United Kingdom factories?
Mr. Aitken : On the work-share point, the hon. Gentleman's questions are premature at this stage, because no decisions have yet been reached between the four partners on precisely which numbers will be used in the production phase. Development work-shares were agreed in 1988 and ours was 33 per cent. There is no suggestion that those should change, but, ultimately, they will depend on the final orders placed by each of the partners.
Mr. Hanley : The RAF's flying training study is progressing satisfactorily. We are continuing to collate and assess the detailed information gathered from the seven flying training stations under study, and the study team expects to report by the end of the year as planned.
Mr. Harvey : Is the Minister aware of the widespread anxiety that the review is causing in north Devon, where RAF Chivenor is a warmly regarded feature of the local community on which businesses, jobs, schools and other services are heavily dependent? Does he agree that RAF Chivenor is uniquely well suited to provide RAF training on account of its favourable geography, weather patterns and topography? Would it not be the economics of the madhouse to close a base at which £12 million has been spent on modernisation and which, because of its location, is not attractive for alternative commercial uses? On account of its technologically modern state, it could be maintained for years to come at minimal expense.
Mr. Hanley : I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am well aware of those factors and, indeed, have discussed the matter with my predecessor. We are in the middle of the study. There is still a great deal of collation of information to come. But all seven of the flying training stations involved in the study are being assessed absolutely equally, taking into account a wide range of factors, including those to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, of course, the main factors will be operations, tasking, facilities, costs, manning and meeting the needs of our Royal Air Force for the future.
Mr. Wilkinson : In his statement last Thursday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State mentioned that there were significant changes to be implemented in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Naval Reserve. However, in that statement he made no observationed in my constituency at RAF Northolt and trains there. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the MHU and Royal Auxiliary Air Force have an assured and valued future?
Mr. Hardy : As the question did not specify purely flying bases, may I ask the Minister to ensure that there is no further contraction of the RAF training capacity until the Government have ensured that contractors, especially those engaged in technological activity, make proper provision for the maintenance of adequate training so that the service is properly provided for in the future? Will he accept that to do otherwise would be to act in the most short-sighted manner, and we have seen quite enough of that in recent years?
Mr. Hanley : I assure the hon. Gentleman that all factors are being taken into account, and I cannot add to that at this stage. The review is taking time because it is so comprehensive and, as I say, all factors are being taken into account. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.
Mr. David Nicholson : Will my hon. Friend consider carefully, in addition to the advantages that the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) mentioned, the role that RAF Chivenor plays in very adverse, including snowy, winter conditions on Exmoor in my constituency rescuing sick people and animals? What implications, if any, will the review have for low-flying training, because
Column 163my hon. Friend will be aware from the correspondence files in his Department that that has also caused certain problems?
Mr. Hanley : I am aware of those matters and there is no doubt that RAF Chivenor provides an excellent service. I am also aware, I hasten to add, of a famous thing called the Chivenor gap, of which I had not heard previously but find fascinating. I am looking forward to studying that phenomenon. In other words, everything is being considered and we shall reach a result on the review by the end of the year.
Mr. Rifkind : I expect to meet the NATO Secretary-General at a regular meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in the autumn. As is usual on these occasions, a wide range of Alliance issues will be discussed.
Mr. Campbell : Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider that it may be time, in the interests of economy and security, to seek greater co-operation between ourselves, the French and the United States? Would it not be consistent with the doctrine of minimum nuclear deterrence to seek to achieve operational arrangements which, while providing a constant nuclear capability for NATO, may be provided at a lower level than at present?
Mr. Rifkind : There are many indications that the French Government are interested in closer dialogue with the United Kingdom on nuclear and other matters of mutual interest. It is right and proper that all the nuclear countries of the NATO alliance--the United States, France and ourselves--should co-operate to the maximum extent possible, and I believe that in the post-cold war situation, Paris is showing more interest in doing that than has perhaps been the case for a number of years.
Mr. Dickens : When my right hon. and learned Friend next meets the Secretary-General of the United Nations, will he remind him of the excellent news today that Vickers has won more orders for the excellent Challenger tank, which is very good news indeed? Are we not the inventors of the world, with television having been born out of radar, a British design, and the jet engine, also a British design, having made the world smaller? Let us tell the world that when you buy British, you buy the best.
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct, and he might have added that our Prime Minister signed that deal with the Sultan of Oman on his visit. That was a great achievement for British sales and British industry.
Column 164--as we did with the measures announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 3 February--we have no current plans for further changes.