Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:29 pm on 6th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Pattie Mr Geoffrey Pattie , Chertsey and Walton 9:29 pm, 6th July 1982

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) may well feel that he has crossed the line in some of his concluding remarks when he reads them tomorrow.

It is hardly surprising that many participants in the debate have concentrated on the Falklands campaign rather than on the contents of the defence White Paper.

[Interruption.] I shall do so myself. A fair amount of emphasis has been given to the Falkland Islands by Ministers. That is as inevitable as it is right.

Before the debates some people criticised the Government for publishing a White Paper at all, thereby posing the intriguing prospect of a defence White Paper debate without a defence White Paper. Such critics ignore the make-up of a defence White Paper, which is part policy, part finance and part an end-of-term report dealing with a variety of military deployments and exercises.

The publication of a necessarily pre-Falklands White Paper underlines the Government's firm belief that, whatever the so-called lessons and conclusions of that campaign may be, the main threat continues to lie with the Soviet Union. It is all the more important that the Falklands campaign with its special and even unique problems should not necessarily become the arbiter of defence priorities in the NATO area.

There is, however, one very clear lesson and that is the vital importance to this country of a strong and vigorous defence industrial base. In a moment I wish to pay tribute to the exceptional performance of British industry throughout the Falklands conflict. I have some examples that I wish to share with the House. Many remarkable stories of industrial performance are yet to be told.

The key element in the performance of industry was speed of response. It is worth bearing it in mind that every time we buy systems from abroad, to the detriment of our industry, we run the risk of undermining that capacity to respond quickly, a capacity that was crucial in the Falklands conflict.

British companies have been extremely co-operative, inspired greatly by public recognition of the emergency as being both national and genuine. Action has often been launched in response to requests by word of mouth from controllerate staff, with the necessary paperwork following later.

There are obvious implications in that for the modus operandi of the procurement process. If the paperwork and the procedures can be circumvented in the national interest, why can that not happen all the time? Some people have suggested that it was possible only because financial constraints were removed. That is not the case and I would go so far as to say that, in many instances, the total cost would be cheaper because of the shorter time taken to carry out a project. That aspect will form part of the post-Falklands analysis.

The response by large and small companies has been excellent. Most hon. Members will have many examples of dedicated and unstinting effort from their constituencies. I emphasise that my examples are only examples and that our thanks and gratitude go to all of those whom I cannot mention for reasons of time.

As was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph on 4 July: Sabre Safety, a small company in Aldershot make a range of safety equipment such as breathing sets. The Navy had originally planned to purchase 2,000 of its Elsa (Emergency Life Support Apparatus) sets, but a week after the sinking of the Sheffield, this was increased to 11,000. Since the Elsa gives a person trapped in a fire eight minutes of extra air, the Navy's urgent interest was obvious.Sabre's problem was how to increase production of the Elsa from 50 to 2,000 a week to accommodate what was a £1 million contract, a big one for a company with a 1981 turnover of around £2 million.Yet by augmenting its 76 strong workforce with 11 extra staff, working up to seven days a week and getting the co-operation of suppliers, Sabre was able to deliver—ahead of schedule. Remarkably, it has also been able to maintain production of its other products.A similar story is told by Peter Lockey, joint managing director of Newcastle-based Berghaus, which specialises in high-quality rucksacks. Before the Falklands crisis, around 700 special rucksacks had been sold to what Lockey terms 'specialist units' of the Army.A week before the Queen Elizabeth 2 sailed, Berghaus was asked if it could produce another 3,000 rucksacks. Back came the answer that this was impossible in such a short time The MOD persisted and asked if it could have 600.Lockey believed that this was still impossible but a mass meeting of the rucksack section of his 280-strong workforce convinced him it could be done.