Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 1st July 1982.

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Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates , Petersfield 7:26 pm, 1st July 1982

This defence debate, following the White Paper, comes at an especially opportune moment because it is the first time that the House is able, as was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his opening speech, to put the Falklands crisis into the perspective of the entire defence scene. During the weeks and months that it continued, it was traumatic and tragic for us, and people could consider nothing but the immediate consequences of what was happening and the immediate assessments of what our troops, performing magnificently as they did, and our other Services could achieve. Of course there was great sadness at the damage and loss of life.

However, history will consider the matter in the perspective in which we are beginning to consider it, in terms of the overall defence, not just of our posture but of that of the West, as a serious and tragic incident of which there have been many since the previous global conflict. It is tragic that we have suffered such losses, but again they must be put in perspective. The loss of ships was unique since the Second World War, and unique measures must and will be taken to put matters right.

If we try to put the loss of aircraft into perspective we must turn to page 53 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" where we find that, in 1981, 32 aircraft were lost or seriously damaged—22 being fixed wing aircraft and 10 helicopters—as opposed to the seven Harriers that were lost in the Falklands. The moral is that we must put the lessons that will be learned in the coming months about what happened in the Falklands into the perspective of what happens day in and day out, year in and year out, with our Services and the purpose of our strategic balance of forces. To over-concentrate our minds on what happened in the South Atlantic would be detrimental to the defence debate as a whole, just as it is detrimental for several hon. Members—doubtless there will be several more—to raise again, in the context of what has happened, the Trident argument.

There are those who are saying that now we have had the Falklands experience we are mad to proceed with Trident. That does not change the argument one iota. The arguments in favour of proceeding with a strategic deterrent were, to a certain extent, balanced. There were sound arguments against and there were, in my view, far sounder arguments in favour when that decision was taken. What happened in the South Atlantic in the past months has nothing to do with that argument. It was discussed fully in the House on several occasions last year. There was an overwhelming majority in support of the decision to proceed with Trident, and there is no point in raising that argument again and hanging it on the losses that have happened because of the Falklands operations.

The question of the contingency fund and the Defence Vote has been raised before. The Secretary of State came to the Select Committee last week straight after the publication of the White Paper, and we were grateful for that. I asked him about the reports that had appeared concerning the guarantees that all of the bill for the Falklands operation, actual and to come, would be picked up by the Treasury.

I put it to the Secretary of State that it is not just a question of the cost of replacing the ammunition that was expended, the fuel that was used, and all the other short-term operating costs that the Treasury have agreed to find. No doubt it will find them because they are the sort of costs that come up quickly, and that guarantee could not be wriggled out of. However, I put it to the Secretary of State that we are not talking about this year specifically, or next year but, to a great extent, about extra costs in which the operation will involve the Ministry of Defence for the next four, five, six, maybe even eight or nine years, until we have fully recovered and fully replaced in service those ships that were lost.

I asked the Secretary of State how copper-bottomed he thought the Treasury guarantee would be. He answered me, slightly wryly, "As copper bottomed as any promise ever is from the Treasury." There is one thing on which I am sure none of my hon. Friends will dissent. That is that we must all see that the Treasury is not allowed to wriggle out of any part of that guarantee which has been given and repeated in the House.

The Treasury will not do so this year. It will try next year and in the year after that it will say "Well now, could you not absorb some of the budget, it is really only a small percentage?"