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Column 1205forgive me if I do not follow his wide- ranging comments on a variety of issues, although I will pick up some of his comments on the tri-service chaplaincy. I intend to focus narrowly on issues relating to the future of the Royal Naval college and the Joint Service Defence college, currently located in the historic former Royal hospital buildings in Greenwich.
In a previous debate--I think that it two years ago--I spoke about the Royal Naval college, and I paid tribute to its impressive record and excellent work. My view is shared by hon. Members, particularly those who are familiar with the college's work and have visited it. In last year's defence costs study, the Secretary of State set out proposals for merging the existing separate service colleges into a new joint service command and staff college. That proposal, I believe, was widely agreed as a sensible response to changing needs for staff training that allowed economies to be made in current spending. There is no dispute about the recommended merger of the existing separate colleges into a combined tri-service college.
There is, however, a very serious question about the subsequent process of determining where the new tri-service college should be located. In the defence costs study, it was confirmed that a review was being conducted to determine whether the Army staff college site at Camberley or the Royal Naval college site in Greenwich would be the best location. On 8 December 1994, the Secretary of State announced the Government's decision in favour of Camberley, claiming that Camberley is
"by far the most appropriate and cost-effective site".--[ Official Report , 8 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 303 .]
The statement concluded that staff training at Bracknell and Greenwich should cease.
Following that announcement, I corresponded with the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, seeking further clarification of the basis on which the decision had been reached, in particular requesting sight of the relevant papers and costings. In reply, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces wrote to me on 22 December, promising early publication of a consultation document which
"will contain all relevant information including costings." The consultation paper was issued last month. On a superficial reading, the decision in favour of Camberley appears to be clearly justified on financial grounds. The table of comparative costs showed costings for Greenwich coming out at about £40 million more over a 10-year period, discounted to net present values. A more detailed analysis of the accompanying tables showed that the great bulk of that additional cost was accounted for by the capital costs of works to convert the existing buildings at Greenwich. Those tables showed the cost of capital works during 1995-96 to 2001-02 at more than £60 million, compared with costs of about £30 million at Camberley. They are broad figures because, in each case, there were two separate options for a different size of college.
The consultation paper did not demonstrate how those costs were made up, but it indicated that they were based on a report by the firm Building Design Partnership, which had been commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to conduct a study of the matter. I therefore asked that a copy of that report should be placed in the Library. The Minister, in his reply to me on 26 January, declined to do so on the grounds that the report contained information that was classified and that it comprised advice to Ministers.
Column 1206I have to say that I was surprised by that response on two counts. First, the suggestion that a report on the conversion of 300-year-old historic buildings to provide lecture theatres, offices and residential accommodation constitutes a classifiable military secret seems to stretch the bounds of credibility rather far. Secondly, the refusal to make the information available on the ground that it constitutes advice to Ministers clearly flies in the face of the pledge that I had previously been given by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, to which I have already referred, that all relevant information, including costings, would be made available. Not surprisingly, I challenged the Minister on that, and, after further correspondence with him, he agreed on 10 February to release to me the executive summary of the Building Design Partnership's report. Although that was a welcome step in the right direction, it did not provide very much more information than was already in the public arena, and in particular it did not demonstrate how the various additional capital costs, which made the Greenwich option appear twice as expensive as Camberley, were made up. In his covering letter, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces commented: "you are right to conclude that the principal reason for the difference in cost between the Greenwich and Camberley options is the need for significantly greater capital expenditure in the early years at Greenwich. This difference is almost entirely due to the fact that the Greenwich site is a Grade 1 listed building and scheduled Ancient Monument and the costs of meeting this substantially larger JSCSC requirement within the statutory constraints associated with that status not surprisingly are high."
Were the Minister here, I would thank him for the care that he put into his lengthy letter, even if he did not provide the information that I requested. The letter continued by identifying specific issues, including
"difficulties of installing networked IT systems; the problems of floor loading (since the upper floors are of a wooden construction); Health and Safety and fire requirements arising from the change of use: and engineering services, in particular the need to double the output of the electoral supply system."
All those points would appear entirely reasonable and plausible, but for the revelation towards the end of the letter that similar costings are unlikely to be applied in respect of the proposed alternative use of the historic buildings at Greenwich, which it is now suggested might house the defence school of languages, or possibly the tri-service chaplaincy.
Clearly there will be some differences in specification for different users, but if it transpires that the cost of adapting the grade 1 listed building at Greenwich to house the defence school of languages can be reduced substantially below the costings assumed necessary for the JSCSC, that raises automatically the question of whether similar economies might have been achieved in the JSCSC specifications.
Before leaving the issue of the suggested alternative uses for the Greenwich site, I have to say that I see no evidence that any financial provision has been made for the costs of transferring alternative Ministry of Defence uses to Greenwich. Unlike the site at Camberley, which could be disposed of if it is not used for the JSCSC, the historic buildings at Greenwich are held in trust by the Greenwich hospital estate, of which the Secretary of State is the sole trustee.
If the Greenwich site is no longer used as a naval or joint service college, the Secretary of State cannot just dispose of it, despite the suggestions of the hon. Member
Column 1207for Romsey and Waterside. The Secretary of State has a responsibility and he is clearly seeking to discharge that by trying to find an alternative use. No financial provision for that alternative use appears to have been included in the costs of the location of the JSCSC, either at Greenwich or at Camberley. There is an element of doubt not only about whether the costs of the Greenwich option may have been unduly inflated, but about whether some additional costs which, of necessity, flow from a decision to locate the tri-service college at Camberley have been taken into account.
That is not the end of the story. The consultation paper recognises that if the army staff college site at Camberley were no longer required--that would presumably be so if Greenwich was the preferred option--it could be sold. Yet no allowance appears to have been included in the table of comparative costs for the disposal of the Camberley site.
In parliamentary questions to and correspondence with the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I have sought further clarification of the point. You can imagine my surprise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when I was told that the information could not be made available for reasons of commercial confidentiality. I am grateful that, on this occasion, the Minister did not try to pretend that the sale value of the Camberley site was a classifiable military secret. Nevertheless, his answer had exactly the same effect of denying the information. Further correspondence and another parliamentary question established that of the 883 acres of MOD land at Camberley, 70 acres were solely occupied by the Army staff college. Inquiries to local estate agents have suggested that the current value of the land suitable for residential development in the Camberley area would be between £400,000 and £500,000 an acre. On that basis, a rough estimate of the potential value of the site would be somewhere between £28 million and £35 million.
The significance of the figures will not be lost on anyone looking carefully at the issue, for that is roughly the same sum as the difference between the costs of the building work at Greenwich and the building work at Camberley, according to the Building Design Partnership report and consultation paper.
From the information that I have been able to extract from a clearly secretive Ministry of Defence, I suspect that there is no allowance in the table of costings for the disposal of the Camberley site. I have written to the Minister on this, but I have not yet had a reply. In fairness to him, he has probably only received my letter within the last two days. If I am wrong on this matter, I shall happily withdraw my claim, and I hope that the Minister will tell the House whether such provision has been made and what the provision amounts to in total. However, if I am not wrong, it is clear that the figures on which we are invited to agree that Camberley is, in the words of the Secretary of State
"by far the most cost-effective option"
are a serious distortion of the respective costs of the two sites. Unless the Minister is able to give a clear, categorical and specific assurance and the information that I am requesting, the only conclusion that we shall draw is that the figures set out in the consultation paper are highly misleading and do not accurately represent the respective
Column 1208costs of the Camberley and Greenwich options. The consultation paper should therefore be withdrawn and new costings prepared, taking account of the various elements which I have highlighted--savings on the conversion cost of the historic buildings at Greenwich, the additional costs of relocating other Ministry of Defence functions in Greenwich and the savings attributable to land sales at Camberley. If the Ministry of Defence is not prepared to do that, it is only right that the Public Accounts Committee should look into the way in which the exercise has been undertaken and also the validity of the estimates being advanced by the Ministry of Defence.
Finally, I shall say a brief word about other elements in the consultation paper. It is not, I fear, only in respect of the figures that the odds have been stacked against Greenwich in this consultation exercise. The paper contains passages that reveal an inherent bias against Greenwich--for example, the section headed "Domestic Considerations", which states:
"Camberley is well served by local schools and medical care is easily accessible. Also the local community in Camberley and Surrey Heath is excellently placed to provide sponsorship to overseas students and their families, giving them a favourable view of Britain and the British way of life, and acting in concert with the college to help them overcome the difficulties of moving in and out. The shopping facilities in the Camberley area are excellent." Hon. Members must compare that with the tone of a paragraph in the same paper on Greenwich, which states:
"Greenwich has good access to the facilities of London but is less well served locally. Historically the majority of staff and students at RNSC and JSC are unaccompanied by their families and so domestic considerations have played a lesser role in the development of the college than at Camberley".
That is all. There is no reference to local schools or medical care, leaving the implication--no one has the guts to put it in writing, of course--that local schools and medical care are inferior. There is no reference to the shopping facilities in London, but I find it difficult to believe that they do not compare with Camberley. There is no reference to the historical location and the exceptional cultural facilities in Greenwich and London. Nor is there a reference to the ability of the local community in Greenwich to make overseas students welcome. It says something about the sense of values of the person responsible for penning that paragraph that he or she clearly assumes that overseas visitors and their families will form a more favourable view of the British way of life in suburban Camberley than in historic Greenwich, where they would be studying in a complex of buildings designed by the greatest names in British architecture--Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Webb, Hawksmore and Vanbrugh-- and eating their meals in a building as splendid as the Painted hall.
That blatant prejudice sadly distorts the consultation document, and is another reason why the recommendation should be reconsidered. The Royal Naval college and the Joint Service Defence college at Greenwich have, over the years, performed an outstanding service. The site they occupy is one of the jewels in Britain's crown. Greenwich deserves better than the shabby treatment it is being given by this biased and flawed consultation exercise.
Column 1209occasions, and tonight's debate has been given special significance by some of the comments made by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement about the future of Britain's defence industries and the Government's newly emerging policy on defence procurement. The debates are also important because the Royal Navy is the senior service, and as a country, and as Members, we should pay tribute to the men and women who serve, and who have served, in the Royal Navy. We owe them an enormous debt.
A theme which has concerned me consistently during my time in the House is the way in which the Government handle the principle procurement issue within the Ministry of Defence.
There has been much discussion during the debate about the extent to which defence expenditure has been reduced, where the cuts have fallen and the resultant implications for our defence industrial base. I believe that the Government, in reducing defence expenditure, have hit systematically at procurement, which has therefore taken the brunt of the Government's reductions in defence spending. I am not sure that that is the best course of action to take. If our fighting forces are to retain their maximum capability, by definition they must also have the most effective equipment.
Between 1990, the year of the"Options for Change" review, and 1994-95, expenditure on sea equipment fell by more than expenditure on land and air equipment. In real terms, the decline in that period in purchasing new sea equipment was 27.5 per cent. In the same period, the defence budget increased in cash terms from £21,709 million in 1990-91 to £22.51 million in 1994-95, which, in real terms, represents a decrease of 17.4 per cent. Those are two interesting figures; the defence budget has fallen by 17.4 per cent. in that period but expenditure on new sea equipment has fallen by 27.5 per cent. If those figures come as a surprise to Ministers, let me tell them that the figures were produced by the House of Commons Library. That is a significant issue, because we all understand, and we accept on both sides of the House, that in the post cold war climate there is a reduced need for defence expenditure. That is common ground between us. The way in which the Government manage that process of reduced defence expenditure causes concern, not only to me, but to my constituents who bear the brunt of those cuts in procurement. In my constituency, that has a special resonance because of our long association with the Royal Navy.
There is a disturbing trend in the way that the Government are handling the country's defence budget. I think especially that the bulk of that economy in terms of new equipment has affected the Royal Navy more than forces on land and in the air. I have a simple question to ask Ministers--"why?" Why have the Government chosen to inflict those economies on new sea equipment? What is the rationale for that? What is the defence justification?
In my constituency, the direct consequence of the Government's reduced expenditure on sea equipment is the loss of 8,000 jobs at VSEL with, I am sorry to say, the probability of even more job losses to come. It has also meant the end of apprentice training. In my constituency, the Vickers shipyard has been the heart of the local economy ever since the town was established. For the hundreds of young men and women who have acquired valuable engineering skills in my
Column 1210constituency, that prospect has ended. There is no apprentice training, and there has been no recruitment since 1990-91. The consequence is catastrophic. VSEL used to recruit about 400 men and women to their apprentice training programme every year. I am no mathematician, but that means approaching 2,000 lost engineering apprentices in a community that is 40 miles from a motorway and more than 100 miles from any other approximate centre of population. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) said that people can simply move to find work, but in this case they cannot. I know that the hon. Gentleman is about to leave the Chamber and I do not wish to embarrass him, but let me tell him that in my constituency it is almost impossible for a young couple, one of whom or both have lost their job at VSEL, to sell their home and move, because the housing market in Barrow-in-Furness has been in the doldrums for many years. There is a substantial problem of negative equity. It is extremely difficult for skilled workers in my constituency to move to find new jobs. That is not on the realistic agenda.
The probability of extra redundancies continues to hang over us. Many of the men and women who currently work in VSEL, and their families who depend on the wages that they earn, live constantly under the threat of their principal wage earner losing his or her job. That is unacceptable.
I contend that the Government have added to the burden of redundancy unnecessarily by delays in key procurement decisions. The principal example that I give to the House and Ministers is the decision to delay procurement of batch 2 Trafalgar class submarines. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement was gracious in allowing me to intervene on his opening speech, but if one examines the records of parliamentary proceedings on earlier occasions, one finds that in 1992 the following answer was given to a written question by the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He said:
"Studies into the design of a batch 2 Trafalgar class are in progress . . . we expect to invite tenders for design and build of the first submarine during the course of next year"--[ Official Report , 21 May 1992; Vol. 208, c. 258.]
That was 1994. It is now 1995. I understand, from what the Minister said today, that it no decision is likely to be made before summer 1996 to order any of those batch 2 Trafalgars. That is a delay of two and a half years. The Minister must understand the consequences that the delay has had, and will have, on employment at VSEL.
The Minister gave the House a possible explanation for the delay. Unless I am misquoting him, which I do not wish to do, the delay was due to the fact that the Government wanted to create competition for the batch 2 Trafalgars. We know what that means--the Government paying money to GEC to put together a rival bid to construct the batch 2 Trafalgars.
The Minister has admitted to the House, which he is right to do because it is correct, that only one shipyard in Britain is licensed to construct nuclear submarines--VSEL. What on earth have the Government been doing, spending what may be as much as £20 million constructing a bogus and fabricated competition for the new batch 2 Trafalgars? There is no doubt, in my opinion, that those submarines will be built at VSEL. I very much hope that that is so.
Column 1211On the Trident programme, VSEL has an established record of producing value for money, and of producing vessels to quality, to standard and to time. The Trident contract is a perfect example of the ability of VSEL to produce high quality equipment that provides value for money for the taxpayer. I do not believe that that would have been any different with the contract for the batch 2 Trafalgars. So I am worried about the Government's policy on that issue and the way that they have handled the ordering of the batch 2 Trafalgars. My final concern relates to the Government's stated policy, with which I agree, of maintaining 12 operational SSNs. I hope that the Minister is able to answer the following question: will the delays in ordering the batch 2 Trafalgars affect in any way the ability of the Royal Navy to maintain and deploy 12 operational SSNs? The programme for constructing the batch 2 Trafalgars is now two and a half years behind schedule, and that will necessarily, I understand, require the continued operation of now aging vessels for that extra two and a half years if we are to maintain an operational fleet of 12 SSNs. I am very worried about the way that the Government have mishandled the issue.
I am also worried about the length of time that the Government appear to spend on processing some of those tenders. I understand that the landing platform dock tenders, which will be submitted in March 1995, are expected to take as much as nine months to be assessed by the Ministry of Defence. Batch 2 tenders are likely to take at least 12 months to assess.
I fully appreciate, and am happy to concede, that the tender documents will be very technical and will require proper assessment to ensure, not only that the Navy obtains the equipment that it wants, but that the taxpayer obtains value for money. However, the longer that the Minister takes to assess those tenders, the greater the consequences that there might be for employment at VSEL. I hope that he will reconsider the length of time that he proposes to take to investigate the merits or otherwise of those tenders.
I also hope that the Minister might be able to say something to the House tonight, because other hon. Members have mentioned the subject, about what is happening to the Upholder class submarines that are currently in my constituency waiting for sale. What progress has been made on the sale of the Upholders? Are the Government in a position to say something more concrete about their future?
I am happy to support the Government in their decision to invite tenders for the replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I support that completely and I hope that the Government will say that they intend to order two vessels to replace Fearless and Intrepid. From an operational point of view, if those amphibious ships are to be deployable, I imagine we would need a bare minimum of two, and I hope that the Government will confirm that that is their intention. I want to say one or two words about the reductions in the Royal Naval Reserve and the decision to disband the Royal Navy Auxiliary Reserve. I am sure that the Minister is aware that a new organisation, the Maritime Voluntary Service, has been set up. It has recruited up to 1,500 volunteers in a uniformed, disciplined service to provide some continuity now that the RNR has been reduced and
Column 1212the RNAS has been disbanded. Because of those reductions, there is a danger that the nation could lose key maritime skills and traditions that are vital to the security of the nation and fulfilling our NATO commitments. The Government should be considering what steps they can take to encourage the retention of that maritime tradition. Ministers have a particular responsibility in that respect, given the continued popularity of the Sea Cadet Corps and the great difficulty that many of those who emerge from it at 18 will have in pursuing a career in the Royal Navy. Those people want to continue to develop their maritime skills so that they are available to the nation in times of emergency.
The Maritime Voluntary Service can provide a useful service to the nation and it deserves the support of the Ministry of Defence. I am interested to know what consideration the MOD has given or is giving to allowing that newly formed service the first option to buy some surplus craft, such as inland minesweepers and fleet tenders, which are now lying idle around the country. It would be a positive step if the Ministry could say that it planned to make those vessels available at a competitive and reasonable price, of course, for the taxpayer. I emphasise that that service is not asking for taxpayers' money to support its work, but it is looking for some sign from the Government that they are interested in retaining traditional maritime and naval skills.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement mentioned important industrial defence issues to do with procurement and stabilising our industrial base. It is common knowledge that defence industries around the world are undergoing major structural change. The GEC--British Aerospace bid for VSEL is simply part of that wider process of change. I am glad that the Government have referred that bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I am particularly glad that one aspect of that reference includes consideration of the public interest in addition to the traditional concern about ensuring competition and avoiding monopolies. I hope that that reference and the MMC's report will include an assessment of employment prospects in our naval shipyards and what needs to be done by Government and industry in partnership to ensure the continuation of those vital engineering skills.
The bid for VSEL raises a number of important questions. First, it highlights the importance of export markets in terms of securing employment in the naval shipyards. We know that the MOD's budget is subject to continuing pressure and we also know that, quite simply, not enough of work is coming from the MOD to keep all the present naval shipyards fully employed up to their maximum capability. For that reason export markets are extremely important. I hope that their importance is also included in the Government's assessment of the defence industrial base.
The VSEL bid also calls into question the future of smaller defence companies. They will face particular difficulties in the future, because if the process is one of rationalisation, with large companies coming together to form bigger groups, where will that leave some of our smaller but highly proficient and technically expert defence contractors?
Another problem relates to competition and monopoly--a central issue that the MMC reference must address. There is not enough business coming out of the MOD to enable the Government to rely on competition
Column 1213alone as a mechanism to influence the structure and shape of the defence industry. There is not enough business to keep three yards fully occupied. Not long ago there were five naval shipyards, but, sadly, in the past two years we have lost Cammell Laird and Swan Hunter.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) that the possibility of greater European collaboration within the European Union must be considered. I would be interested to know whether the Government are currently considering amending article 223 of the treaty of Rome and proposing any changes in that regard at the intergovernmental conference in 1996. Are the Government considering a case for the creation of a single European market for defence goods? What would be its implications for the United Kingdom?
On the question of collaboration and greater co-operation between European defence contractors, will the Minister of State for the Armed Forces give us slightly more information than that offered by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement? The right hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the Government's belief that they need to retain a capability to build hulls. I asked him whether that involves the key operation of fitting out. With respect, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman quite understood my question. Naval shipyards are not just places where hulls are built, but where equipment is installed and ships are finished, for example, by fitting engines, propulsion units and weapons systems. The right hon. Gentleman is well aware of that, but he did not say that the Government saw the need to protect fitting out as an operation conducted within the remnants of the United Kingdom's warship building industry.
In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman said, hulls could be completed in the United Kingdom but towed somewhere else to be fitted out with kit and equipment that may be British or foreign. It is important that, in order to retain the skills base in the naval shipyards, those fitting-out operations are also completed in the United Kingdom.
A large proportion of the equipment fitted in the type 23 frigates is not built in the United Kingdom. That fact was not at the heart of the question that I put to the Minister of State, but if we want to retain a hull- building capability in the United Kingdom--I strongly urge that we want to do that--are we also committed to retaining that technical ability to fit out and finish off those hulls and platforms? I strongly urge the Minister to make it clear that that is the Government's intention, because that key fitting-out operation is just as important in terms of retaining our shipbuilding capability as is the ability to complete a steel hull.
I hope that once the MMC report on VSEL is published there will be an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to discuss its implications. It has always been my contention that the issues raised by the VSEL takeover go far beyond the future of the Barrow and Furness economy. They affect the whole structure, size and location of the British defence industry. That issue is critical to the future of the Royal Navy and our armed services in general.
Column 1214like to begin by paying tribute to all those who serve in our armed services, particularly those in active service now in support of the United Nations. Since this is a debate on the Navy, I should like to pay particular tribute to those who are serving in the Royal Navy. I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) on his thoughtful opening speech. I welcome him to his new role on our Front Bench. I should also like to thank the Government Whips, because, in the past, I have sat through many other debates on services and been called right at the end only to see the Government Whips pull in Conservative Back Benchers to speak who had not sat through those debates. I appreciate the fact that the Government Whips have not done that on this occasion. In the 20 years in which I have served in the House it is interesting to note how support for debates on the services has steadily declined within the Conservative party. There was a time when it was extremely difficult even for Conservative Members to get called.
The speech by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was also extremely helpful. I do not blame him for drawing attention to the difference between the Opposition Front Bench and people like myself. I am certainly not ashamed of my position as someone who has always supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and I shall continue to do so. I have no need to wear a badge as I have always supported those views. If they were right at the height of the cold war they are still right.
What disappointed me was the Minister's reluctance to accept that there is common ground between the Government, the Opposition Front Bench and people like myself. We are all committed to getting rid of Trident; we disagree on the method not the desire. It is important for the House to stress just how expensive the Trident system is, the £30 billion in expenses that are likely to be involved and the unimaginable horror that would result if the weapons were ever used or if they were involved in an accident. Even if the weapons were never used, considerable environmental problems would be involved in getting rid of the ships and the weapons.
I had hoped that the Minister would spend some time telling us how the Government envisage the removal of the weapons systems. In particular, I would have liked him to tell us what progress is being made in the preparations for the non-proliferation treaty discussions and to give the House the assurance that they have always been reluctant to give--that Britain is not in breach of the current non-proliferation treaty by the introduction of Trident and the number of weaponheads that may be involved, and that it will not make the negotiation of the new treaty that much more difficult. I was disappointed that we did not hear it from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement; perhaps we will hear something from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces when he replies to the debate. What progress is being made on getting a complete test ban on nuclear weapons? The Government have reluctantly accepted that we can do all the testing that we want with simulation rather than actual tests, but there is still a question mark over what the Chinese do. If the Chinese test, the Americans may test and that will lead to the issue of whether we do. It would be helpful to hear more about the Government's views.
Column 1215As the whole idea was that Trident would be a deterrent, there should be more transparency about the Government's proposals and their policy towards it. If it really is a deterrent, the more we tell people about it the more likely it is to deter.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee, pointed out the continuing military capability of the former Soviet Union. What are the Government doing about that? There must be fear in people's minds that a changing regime within the former Soviet Union might return to a rather more warlike and aggressive stance. How far are the British Government helping to scale down the military industrial complexes within the former Soviet Union? Only if they can be scaled down and their resources reallocated to consumer production--the sooner that happens, the better--will there be less likelihood of a new threat developing from that part of the world.
Therefore, it is very important that when we discuss arms conversion, we do not limit our debate to the United Kingdom and western Europe, but explore what can be done to aid arms conversion within the former Soviet Union.
We have also to examine other threats. Conservative Members talked about the threats from fundamentalists and terrorist groups. The theory of deterrence does not work when we face a threat from those groups of people. It is important that we rethink how we are going to deal with such threats. In respect of both the fundamentalists and the terrorist groups, it is essential throughout the world to ensure that nuclear materials are not readily available. I fear that some of those groups may not be deterred--if deterrents have ever worked against anyone--by the threat of us having nuclear weapons, that may even spur them on to action.
I had hoped that the Minister could have said a little about what we are doing to prepare for the decommissioning of nuclear-powered submarines that already have been laid up and the Polaris submarines and their nuclear fuels. The United States and the former Soviet Union have increasing numbers of nuclear-powered submarines rusting away in various coastal inlets. Their disposal will create problems. When we are talking about creating jobs, any country that can come up with the technology to become involved in decommissioning nuclear submarines has good prospects for some excellent jobs in the future, not only providing employment opportunities but making an important environmental contribution.
I turn briefly to the question of the diversification of defence industries. The Minister said that we could not expect the Government to provide subsidies for arms conversion. However, the Government have provided subsidies for most of our defence contractors over the years in the form of defence research and development work. I suggest that the Government continue that research and development, but at the same time encourage some of our military contractors to look at civil uses for their equipment.
If we are not careful, any chance of competition for military contracts will decline steadily and it will cost far more money to purchase goods and equipment from a
Column 1216single supplier. It would be a better use of taxpayers' money to encourage the existing suppliers to diversify their operations and give them an alternative base.
The alternative--which the Government seem to be very keen on--is to encourage our defence contractors to sell military equipment to any country in the world. I believe that that is a very dangerous policy. Time after time we have sold defence equipment to allegedly safe, favourable regimes which, five or six years later, have changed totally and, in some instances, have become extremely hostile to this country.
I do not believe that we should try to subsidise and maintain defence contractors in this country through a policy of selling military equipment to any country in the world which is not acting aggressively towards us at that time. It would be far better to spend a small amount of money to ensure that defence contractors can develop alternative, peaceful uses for their factories and their skilled workforce. Factories could then have a military production line as well as an economically viable civil production line. That would be better than pushing defence contractors out of business, or forcing them to sell military equipment to undesirable countries. I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will tell us what progress the Government have made with regard to the nuclear non- proliferation treaty. Will he inform the House when the Government hope that the Soviet Union will move to reduce its capability for producing all sorts of ships, many of which have nuclear capability? Will he explain what the Government are doing about decommissioning the existing nuclear-powered submarines in this country? I also seek the Minister's assurance that the Government will look more carefully at the countries to which they encourage British arms manufacturers to sell weapons, because we may be storing up problems for the future.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- and thank you for the groans of support from the Government Front Bench. In a wide-ranging debate such as this it is obviously impossible to address all the points that have been made--although I am sure that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will do his best in his wind-up speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) raised a specific point about HMS Caroline being retained in the north of Ireland. Having consulted my colleagues, I can assure him that a future Labour Government will be well disposed toward that matter. The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) made his usual formidable contribution to the debate. I usually quote him at great length when criticising the Government, but in his speech today he challenged our commitment to the defence review, as did the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). I will return to that point later.
The contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), as well as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), were spiced with the knowledge and experience that they
Column 1217gained through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. However uncomfortable that experience may make the Government of the day--I am sure that it will happen to us when we are in Government--it is a worthy scheme. In the decades following the end of conscription, fewer Members of the House have had experience of or personal contact with the armed forces. I know that the scheme is widely supported. The hon. Member for Hall Green emphasised the importance of our carriers. I think that he was one of only two people to raise that matter tonight and he was correct to do so. I hope that the Minister will have something to say on it. He also mentioned amphibiosity, and I concur with the views that he expressed. If I heard him correctly, however, he referred to a "subtle escalation" in nuclear war. I know that there may be nuances of difference between on us on that subject, but did he really say that?
Mr. Hargreaves: The hon. Gentleman misheard me. I think that I was suggesting that submarines could be used for the subtle escalation or projection of force. That would be in conventional terms, of course, rather than nuclear.
A number of hon. Members raised an important issue--the ratio of shore leave to time spent at sea--which I shall deal with briefly. That does not mean to say that I deem it to be less important than other issues. During debates on the Army, it is common for us to raise the subject of the time between roulement battalions--I suppose that this is the parallel in the Navy. I know that the Minister will be concerned about it. Perhaps he will assure us that, as the downsizing feeds through and the world position changes, and our Northern Ireland commitments diminish, the problem will ease. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned because the material condition and welfare of our troops is essential. It is a good thing in itself and is a vital component of morale.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, who challenged the defence review, did so in a sustained and intellectually coherent fashion, which we found refreshing, as it has often been dismissed over the years by Conservative Members, without any real basis of intellectual argument against it. I listened carefully, as did my colleagues, to what he said. There is, perhaps, much wider agreement than at first appears--certainly with the first two of his points--on the relationship between defence and foreign affairs and the nature of matching resources and commitments. Indeed, were they not official spokesmen, both Ministers would agree with those points. I take it that he is arguing that a review was right all along and that the Government have got it wrong all along. But having got it wrong and imposed all the burdens on the services, for God's sake do not impose yet another burden. He can be assured that we are aware of that difficulty and will take it into account in our own thinking. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) spoke of the anxiety and the reality of job losses in Plymouth and Devon and the sensitivity of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces when dealing with sackings. There was, of course--we all want to forget--a long and rather unedifying discussion on membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I am of the opinion that if everyone in the House who is accused of CND membership was actually in CND at one time, its coffers would have been swollen well beyond what they were.
Column 1218One hopes that if the hon. Gentleman ever joins the armed forces parliamentary scheme again, his target practice will be slightly more successful than it was tonight, because when--at around dinner time--only five or six Labour Members were present, he picked two who, supposedly, were in CND, and was wrong on both occasions. If in one's previous political incarnation in the SDP one has stood on the same platform with CND representatives, and proudly displayed it in one's election leaflet, one should not, when one later becomes a Tory Member of Parliament, stand up and accuse Labour Members of being in CND, when they were not in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport gave a pretty damning indictment of the Government's policy on personnel, housing and education. No doubt the Minister will wish to reply.
The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made pertinent points on the defence industrial base and the size of the merchant navy.
I was increasingly convinced by the defence of Greenwich advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford). I hope that the Minister was listening as carefully as I was. He suggested the existence of huge and significant omissions from the consultation document which must put its validity and objectivity in question. As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who attends nearly all our defence debates, delivered insights into procurement management and enlightening statistics relating to naval expenditure. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) again raised the general subject of the Government's approach to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, targeting his points successfully. He also pointed out--and it is worth noting--that very few Tory Members have been present for the debate.
This must be the first occasion in living memory on which the Conservative party has run out of speakers during a defence debate, and it demonstrates beyond doubt that the defence argument is being won by the Labour party--a party whose defence stance is confident and assured. That contrasts with the performance of the Minister. As we know, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces approaches the Dispatch Box in a timid, faltering and directionless way, scratching around for solutions.
What do we ask from a debate such as this? We normally seek elucidation, enlightenment and education; that is the nature of our parliamentary exchanges, is it not? What have we learnt from today's debate? We have learnt about a number of interesting minor details: I was amazed to learn, for instance, of the emphasis that the MOD apparently places on subsidies for foxhunting. It seems that foxhunting adds immeasurably to the tactical judgment of sailors in particular. I look forward to studying the underlying reasons when my party is in government.
We also learnt that the vast majority of soldiers, sailors and airmen have experienced a cut of over 15 per cent. in their salaries and remuneration since the Conservatives came to power in 1979. Having drawn attention to that, we were accused of stirring up subversion in the armed forces. Apparently, it is now a treasonable offence to point out to a soldier, sailor or airman that the Tories have cut the amount of money that he receives. Not only hanging but drawing and quartering is the fate that awaits those who commit the even more treasonable offence of
Column 1219pointing out that, during the same period, admirals, commodores, brigadiers and generals have been given a 17 per cent. pay increase. Of course, those who will decide the matter are members of the armed forces, who will make their opinion known in the secrecy of the ballot box.
We learnt that during the periods since the war when Labour has been in government a higher percentage of gross domestic product has been spent on defence than under the Tories: 6.4 per cent. per annum, rather than 5.8 per cent. Those are interesting statistics, given the Conservatives' record in maligning our position on defence. We also heard again something that we had heard only 24 hours ago. Yesterday, for the first time in years, we heard an admission--from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement-- that what we have said for the past four years is true: that in the decade between 1985 and 1995 the defence budget has fallen by 25 per cent. in real terms. It has been--I quote the Minister--
"a much sharper fall in recent years for the support services."--[ Official Report , 15 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 960.]
The Minister may think that that is not the first time that the fall in the budget has been admitted publicly. I cannot expect him to know this, because he has not been around for the past four or five years, but some of us were accused of misleading the House by suggesting that a 25 per cent. cut was scheduled in that decade's budget.
Naturally, we fully expect the Treasury to seek financial solace from the Ministry of Defence, particularly in the aftermath of the cold war. Our charge against the Government is not that they have slashed defence expenditure; it is the simple but damning charge that, in the course of those reductions, they have proceeded without strategy or coherence; have cut, are cutting and will continue to cut in a piecemeal fashion; and, in the course of cutting, they wasted finances, squandered skills and thrown away equipment. In so doing, they have undermined both capability and morale in our armed forces. No wonder a recent paper from the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies concluded:
"Far from being able to claim that `defence is safe in our hands', the Conservatives must hope that defence will not be an issue at the next election."
Trying to make a virtue out of a necessity, the Government claim that the big upheavals are over and imply that the cuts have finished.