Orders of the Day — Royal Navy (Expenditure)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th January 1974.

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Photo of Dr David Owen Dr David Owen , Plymouth, Sutton 12:00 am, 16th January 1974

The present defence policy of the Government is a direct contradiction of practically everything that Ministers said when they were in opposition and, indeed, on frequent occasions is a contradiction of what Ministers said in the earlier part of this Government's tenure of office.

The present defence stance of the Government is a staggering indictment of the whole philosophy of the Tory Party over the last 50 to 100 years and of successive Tory statements on defence. The facts are that the defence expenditure cuts that have been announced for this coming year will involve the largest reduction that has ever been made in expenditure for a succeeding year.

In May of last year, a cut of £60 million was announced for the year starting April 1974. In October of last year, a further consequential reduction of £12 million was announced to operate in 1974. In December, the staggering reduction of £178 million was announced, making a grand total of exactly £250 million—not a phased reduction over two or three years, but a savage reduction to take effect in the year immediately following.

This decision on defence expenditure reflects the dire overall state of the nation's economy. Regardless of the coalminers working a five-day week, and irrespective of the oil crisis, we now know from the Governor of the Bank of England that this country, after more than three years of profligacy and mismanagement is running a deficit on the balance of payments of £2,500 million a year. It is no wonder that the governor warns of some years of relative austerity stretching ahead.

I, personally, do not dispute the need for these defence cuts, and I have always believed that the defence budget should be kept under constant scrutiny. What I dispute is the way this country has been run and the way the economy has been allowed to drift downwards so that this sorry state of affairs has had to be announced as an emergency programme, without any warning, and not as part of a phased steady reduction in the defence budget.

Never again will the Tory Party be able to represent itself, as it has done ceaselessly, as the sole protector and safe-guarder of the Services. Never again will the Tory Party be able to claim to be the sole patriotic party. Never again will this House—and, hopefully, the country—have to listen to the mixture of bombast and hypocrisy that has constantly come from the benches opposite when defence matters are discussed. These cuts represent yet another of the Government's now famous U-turns.

I do not need to remind Ministers of the pledges they made on defence expenditure when in opposition, whether it was to keep a sizeable presence in the Far East—£100 million a year was one of the figures mentioned—a firm commitment to remain in the Persian Gulf, the commitment to build a fifth nuclear submarine or the commitment to increase the build rate of hunter-killer submarines. The list is never-ending. Yet all those promises lie now in the waste paper basket of electoral pledges to take their place along with the most famous electoral pledge of all: to cut prices "at a stroke".

What must not be forgotten, however, is that the implementation of these cuts, and particularly the latest of £178 million, can have a savage effect on the Services, on the Service men who work in them and—because I am particularly concerned in this debate with the Royal Navy—on the major industries, particularly the Royal dockyards, that serve the Navy.

It is simply not good enough that the Minister yesterday was unable to give the House any information or details about these cuts. We are told that a number of Royal dockyard projects will necessarily be curtailed or depressed and that Ministers are either unable or unwilling to give any details. I hope that the Minister tonight will at least be able to give some details. No details have been given, or apparently can be given, of the effect of these expenditure cuts on the major cities that serve and are often very dependent on the Services or—because I am obviously concerned about the city of Plymouth—of the intimate effects on the Royal dockyards or on employment. We know nothing about what will happen to Service men's pay or to dockyard workers' pay. This lack of information is not tolerable.

It might have been reasonable to wait for the Defence White Paper, but we are told by constant Government leaks that they intend to pitch the country into a cynically contrived General Election. I hope that this is not so, but it would certainly put my mind at rest if the Minister tonight would tell us that these announcements will be made in the Defence White Paper which will be published before the country is facing a General Election. It may well be that, even now, Ministers will hold back from what would in my view be a totally irresponsible election. If, however, they go to the country, the country, and especially the constituencies which will be deeply affected by these expenditure cuts, have the right to know what impact and effect they will have.

I should like to know from the Minister whether the savage cut-back is to be in the dockyard modernisation programme, so essential for the effective working of the dockyards and so vital for achieving the improvements in productivity which most of us want to see. Are the cuts to be a series of postponements, rephasings or carrying forward of expenditure which we have seen occurring in the defence budget for the last two years—the same mix as we have had before, fudging through and avoiding serious strategic cuts, while at the same time there is lavish runaway expenditure on items such as the cruiser programme, now running at close to £100 million a cruiser, and we have even been told that that may be rephased?

Are we once again to see a reduction in the hunter-killer submarine programme, which would have a profound effect on the dockyards refitting the submarines, Plymouth and Chatham? There are already once again signs that expenditure on the surface Navy, a version of the Navy of a century ago, will reduce expenditure on the Navy of the future, the underwater Navy. Before it is plunged into an election, the country has the right to know the answers to such questions.

During the period of the present Government we have experienced unparalleled industrial unrest in the Government establishments in the Royal dockyards. What has been interesting has been that that unrest has been at all levels—management, non-industrial civil servants and others. In January of last year they passed a resolution recording their deep sense of outrage at the Government in their rôle of employer for breaking their pay agreement with their own employees.

Earlier in the life of the present Government there was a major strike in the Royal dockyards, and the Government's allegation that the dockyard workers were then acting unreasonably was comparable with the present situation. When eventually the matter went to arbitration, a substantial increase was awarded and the men's initial claim was largely upheld. Since the Government came to office, we have not had a single new piece of naval construction carried out in the dockyards, and that is a long way from their pledges before taking office.

For many years I have believed that it was time that the country's defence policy was conducted on a more bipartisan basis. However, in opposition hon. Members opposite have never missed an opportunity to try to make party capital out of defence policies. I remember that at the last election the present Secretary of State for the Environment, then defence spokesman, made a speech at Plymouth when he gave a number of pledges, none of which has been fulfilled.

All too frequently—and the Minister himself has fallen into this trap)—they have made speeches—and I think that it was the Minister himself who came to the West Country to speak about the Labour Party's defence programme—quoting from the Blackpool Conference. I hope that the Minister will not do that again, because there is now a defence policy from which he may quote rather more accurately and on which the Labour Party will fight the next election. It is remarkably similar to the policy being pursued by the present Government. We say: While maintaining our support for NATO as an instrument for détente no less than defence we shall, in consultation with our allies, progressively reduce the burden of Britain's defence spending to bring our costs into line with those carried by our main European allies. Such a realignment would, at present levels of defence spending, mean savings on defence expenditure by Britain of several hundred million pounds per annum over a period". The present Government have reduced defence expenditure by £250 million in just one year.

For further confirmation of the trend one has only to look at the RUSI memorandum "Budgeting for Defence", published in 1972, when the writer said: The reshaping of the UK defence that was settled between 1964 and 1969 has undergone no significant change in the last three years. A pattern of defence priorities was established towards the end of Labour's period of office which has been preserved by their successors. Moreover, the scale of the defence effort, and hence the position of defence in the scale of national priorities, also appears to have become settled. All that has happened since then is that defence has received far less of a share of the overall national budget. I do not dissent from those priorities. But if, as I fear, this country is to be plunged into a General Election, I hope that we shall have no more bombast from the Under-Secretary or from his Secretary of State, or from any Ministers who purport to speak on defence matters, and that they will recognise that the defence policies which they have pursued, particularly over the last year or so, mean that there is precious little difference between the two parties and that they serve the Services ill by pretending otherwise.

However, there is a more serious responsibility upon them. If the Government are to plunge this country into a General Election, the overall effect of that £250 million reduction in one year will have a serious impact on the Services and the people who are deeply implicated in the defence budget. The Government have a duty to the country to reveal far more information on how those reductions are to be made than has yet been given, and certainly far more than has been made available.