Long-Term Aircraft Programme

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th March 1968.

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Photo of Mr Ian Orr-Ewing Mr Ian Orr-Ewing , Hendon North 12:00 am, 7th March 1968

I beg to move, That this House regrets that Her Majesty's Government's precipitate actions and vacillating policies have jeopardised this country's long-term aircraft programme, both operationally and industrially, and made Great Britain deeply dependent on others for vital elements in our ability to defend ourselves and contribute to the defence of our allies. The first part of the Motion hardly needs debating or arguing. It refers to "precipitate actions", and it is clear from the three days' debate we have already had on defence that action was taken first and the thinking will follow later. We are now saddled with an interim Defence White Paper which will lead to a full Defence White Paper in the summer.

The question of "vacillating policies" has also been well argued by the Secretary of State for Defence himself, who has explained that he wanted, I think on five occasions, to see a period of stability for the Services, and on each occasion a crisis swept him and the plans into the wastepaper basket. I shall deal with the operational repercussions and will leave my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) to concentrate on the industrial repercussions. I also want to deal with repercussions on the balance of our forces and on our alliances.

The total defence budget this year is up by £66 million. The introductory paragraph—which, I believe, must always be written by Ministers, for it contains so much more politics than the rest of the White Paper put together—has a whole lot of excuses, presumably thought up for the Left wing. I am sorry not to see members of the Left wing here for it explains that this, that and the other were unforeseen, all of which has meant extra cost. This, of course, happens every year.

Of course, defence estimates often have to be adjusted because of unforeseen contingencies and I recall that, last year, there was a Supplementary Estimate of £43 million. But the same people are in the same jobs this year. They are a little more tired and will, therefore, probably make a few more mistakes and be more hurried in their preparations in view of the crisis, so that we can expect an even bigger Supplementary Estimate at the end of the year.

In addition, this defence budget does not allow in any way for the cancellation costs of the F111 or of the Buccaneer or of the Chinook. One hazards the guess that these together will add another £70 million, much of it in dollars, to the bill we are debating.

Much has happened since our debates last year. First, there was the crisis of the paper aircraft which the Defence Secretary thought up and in which he put so much faith—the Anglo-French V.G. Then there were the economic crisis of July and, as always happens under Labour, the defence votes took the brunt. Then we had the devaluation crisis and again defence cuts. In this instance, the air side of the Ministry of Defence took the brunt, and we had the cancellations of the Chinook and the Buccaneer. Then came the January economies and the cancellation of the F111.

The country and Parliament find it difficult to anticipate just what the Government are going to do. There is, however, one certainty. Whenever the Government get into an economic crisis and look for things to cut, the great majority of the cuts come in the defence programme. That is very popular with the Left wing but had for the defence of the country and our commitments. Sometimes they say that sacred cows are to be slaughtered, but defence always bears the brunt. This is a typical reaction—a sort of Pavlovian dog reaction—of the Labour Party to an economic crisis.

On page 68 of the Grey Paper—in semimourning, as it should be—one sees the division of the responsibilities and of the vote as between the different Services. The Ministry of Defence (Central) has the biggest percentage increase—Parkinson's Law at work, presumably—with an increase of 14 per cent. the air expenditure shows the smallest increase and in real terms is a cut, for it is only 2 per cent. up. The Ministry of Technology shows a reduction of £17½ million. It is not clear why this should be so. I hope that it is not because the Government are eating the technical seed corn and cutting back the development of future advanced weapons and aircraft, because if that is so we shall feel the strain even more in the mid and late 1970s.

The biggest percentage increase of 12 per cent., is for the Ministry of Public Building and Works, providing an extra £21½million. I understand that this is largely for bricks and mortar, in most cases providing or re-providing in this country facilities which already exist overseas. It is worth remembering, too, that we were told on Tuesday that £30 million has already been spent on extra barracks and married quarters. This seems a strange way of spending money in order theoretically to save it.

We condemn the Government for the repercussions of these affairs on the present and future operational strength of the Royal Air Force. We remember the brave words of the Defence White Paper in February. 1966, which said that the Anglo-French V.G. was to be both operationally and industrially the core of our long-term aircraft programme. I feel rather sorry for the Under-Secretary of State for Defence who, I believe, is to follow me in this debate.