Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 1st July 1982.

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Photo of Dr Oonagh McDonald Dr Oonagh McDonald , Thurrock 9:11 pm, 1st July 1982

First, I should like to congratulate the task force on its brilliant job in defending the Falkland Islands and in freeing the people there from Fascist rule. I should also like to extend my sympathy to those who have lost relatives and to those who have been injured. I should like particularly to mention those in Thurrock, especially members of the merchant marine who, no doubt, left from Tilbury Docks and were involved in the task force.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) has already set out the attitude of the official Opposition by stressing the determination of the Labour Party to ensure peace and security for Britain and to provide adequate conventional forces. He has also expressed our deep antipathy to the employment of nuclear weapons from Britain. It is from that standpoint that I want to comment on the White Paper.

We were all astonished, having listened to the rumours for several weeks, that the Secretary of State decided to publish the White Paper in this form. When we read it we asked ourselves why he had published it. It was obviously strange to publish a document that was produced before the Falklands crisis and which therefore could not take account of all the political, technical and military lessons which had to be learnt from it. Indeed, it referred to ships that had been lost or damaged during the Falklands operation.

The White Paper shows once again, even in the aftermath of the Falklands crisis, that as far as the Government are concerned the whole stress of their defence policy depends on the deployment of nuclear weapons. It is, perhaps, especially significant that as one goes through the chapters of the White Paper the first chapter is about the nuclear forces and, in particular, Trident. That forms the basis of the Government's defence for the future and it is that that distorts the Government's defence policy.

The Government refuse to acknowledge that their decision to take Trident makes it impossible to fulfil the other aims of defence, not perhaps in the immediate future but in the years to come. Expenditure on Trident will make it impossible for the Government to put the future defence of the United Kingdom on a sound basis. It means that the Government cannot carry out their other commitments as a major contributor to NATO's naval and maritime air capacity.

The crunch will not come this year, but the Government will go out of office—perhaps in 1983 or 1984—leaving the country's defences weak, and placing the burden of providing adequate conventional forces on the next Government. That is ironic, for a Tory Government like to be seen as the Government who alone offer a serious commitment to defend this country.

Yet people should learn from history. It took a long time to sort out the mistakes of the 1957 Tory White Paper on Defence and in future it may be our misfortune to spend a long time sorting out the Government's mistake in going for Trident. The Secretary of State has been offered several figures for the cost of Trident by my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford, but I shall give him a few more. An interesting aspect of the White Paper is that almost without batting an eyelid, the cost of the Trident programme increased to £7·5 billion at 1981 prices. That means that at current prices, the bill is already £8 billion and that the probable estimate—which most commentators accept—is £10 billion.

In addition, we must consider the impact of Trident's purchase on the capital expenditure programme, which, strictly defined, excludes, for example, research and development. If that programme is taken into account the cost of Trident will amount to 15 to 20 per cent. of the capital expenditure budget in the peak years. That will be at about the end of the decade and at precisely the time when other parts of the conventional forces will need to be re-equipped and replaced. That is why the Government are shirking their responsibility to defend Britain properly. They are pushing the burdens on to the next Government. They will have to be responsible for sorting out the Trident error. The next Government will have to take the responsibility of re-equipping the Navy and of providing for that.

The Government repeatedly claim that the cost of Trident is only three per cent. of the defence budget over an 18-year programme. I understand why they pick that percentage; it is the best possible presentational figure for them. However, in the peak years the figure will double and will be six to eight per cent. of the overall defence budget. Once hon. Members see how the costs rise sharply at a crucial time in the development of the nation's defences, they will realise that the Government shuffled those problems to one side.

After all, what can be done with Trident? If the Government's claim that it is not a first-strike weapon is taken seriously we can only keep it in Britain and hope to God that we never have to threaten seriously to use it. If we threaten to use it, the other side will not take the threat seriously. Trident cannot be properly understood as a deterrent. No one will believe that we are prepared to risk serious destruction and the possible annihilation of our country by using that weapon. The Government have put their eggs in that basket and that is why it constitutes chapter 1 of the White Paper.

The Government have turned their attention away from the Navy. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), a former Minister, may be correct to suggest that the Government have begun to learn a little from what he has said in the past and from their mistakes. However, they have a long way to go. What should have been learnt, partly from the Falkland Islands episode, is the significance and importance of the Navy. We are an island and a trading nation and we must therefore defend it at sea. This episode should make us learn that the Navy is vital. After all, 96 per cent. of our imports of food, energy and raw materials and exports of manufactured goods are transported by sea.

The whole operation of the Falkland Islands was brought about by the Navy. The movement of defences, the landing and supply of 9,000 soldiers over 8,000 miles from their base, could have been carried out only by landing ships, frigates, destroyers and carriers. I hope that the Secretary of State will learn that lesson once and for all.

The Secretary of State should also realise not only that we make an important contribution to NATO through the Navy—after all, the Alliance is strung together by ships—but that it has an advantage for us, in our foreign policy and our defence. If we give the Navy priority, that gives us a certain independence in the planning and operation of our foreign policy and defence. That means that we can be free to operate outside NATO, if necessary, to defend our interests or to defend those who require defence. It means also that we are free to co-operate if a future United Nations force should come about.

I now turn to specific questions about the Navy that I hope the Minister will deal with either now or later. In the answer to the Select Committee questioning last week, the Secretary of State said that out of the task force—he declared the number of ships to be 23–16 destroyers and frigates were lost or damaged. That is two-thirds of the task force.

When I was trying to discern how many ships were in the task force, looking at reported sources, I saw the suggestion that there were about 50 ships. Is that figure correct? Which ships were involved in the task force, even if not continuously? How many were destroyed or damaged? In particular, how many of those ships are due to be scrapped or sold? The Minister has announced the reprieve of some of the ships. Some of the ships that have been reprieved were involved in the task force. It is now time that we got a clearer picture. Before the reprieve, the number that I calculated was 17 due to be sold out of 50. Others put the figure at 29 out of 50. We want to know the whole disposition of the task force. This is the time for such questions to be answered.

We have some information now about ships to be sold or scrapped up to 1984–85. However, we are not told what will happen to the fleet after 1986. That is a crucial area for a number of Leander ships and other classes such as the Rothesay class. We need to know what proportion will be scrapped or sold and therefore what the burden of replacement or refit will be after that stage. If one looks at the age of the ships involved one suspects that a substantial proportion will go and that the fleet might be reduced to some 32 ships by the end of the decade. That number may not be up to date, in view of what the Secretary of State said. If that is so, the number may be smaller. The costs for the next Government to bring that number up to proper strength would be great.