Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 18th June 1984.

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Photo of Mr Dick Douglas Mr Dick Douglas , Dunfermline West 7:55 pm, 18th June 1984

We have heard several interesting speeches and an entertaining one from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley). He referred to the Secretary of State's room in the Ministry of Defence and said that on one wall there is a portrait of Lloyd George and on another—I hope that I am not breaching the rules of secrecy —there is a great organisational chart which is much beloved by the Secretary of State, who considers himself something of a professional consultant on many matters.

One of the most depressing features of discussing defence is examining the relationship between defence and foreign policy. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd and Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas) said that we are in the middle of a nuclear arms race. We have been in the middle of a nuclear arms race since 1945. One of the most depressing features of that race is the inability of the great powers to agree even on matters that would appear simple, such as measurement, and whether we should discuss warheads or launchers. Inability to agree on such relatively simple concepts has resulted, albeit inadvertently, in the breakdown of many negotiations, including the intermediate nuclear forces talks at Geneva.

We address the arms race by turning to the Trident system. There is no point in the Ministry of Defence suggesting that it is merely a replacement for Polaris. We have heard the view of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and the considerable view of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed), who said that, at this juncture, he reluctantly goes against the Trident system. Trident is a costly device. It overloads our programme and, in later years, will take a substantial proportion of the procurement budget. Moreover, it will crowd out some conventional, especially naval, weaponry. We are still not sure of its cost as we have not received a clear answer from the Secretary of State. Nor are we sure how much will be procured in the United Kingdom. There is a hopeful view that we shall keep the American portion of that expenditure below 45 per cent., but that is a mere hope and there is no sign that the proportion of our defence expenditure that goes to the United States will be reduced.

I have already mentioned the Secretary of State's view that he is a management consultant. That is shown by the way in which he strives towards competition in a number of spheres. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) have approached the MOD about a number of issues, but especially about the proposals emanating from one of the Secretary of State's advisers, Mr. Peter Levene. There is nothing in the main body of the report dealing with the privatisation of the dockyards. Paragraph 239 refers to competition, and that could be a precursor to assessing certain aspects of competition within the dockyards.

No one fears reasonable comparison on efficiency and the desire to get value for money. However, the personnel in the dockyards fear privatisation through the back door, where the assets of the dockyards are leased to private concerns. The MOD has had no consultations with those working in the dockyards. I want the Minister to assure the House, and through us those working in the dockyards, that there will be full consultation before implementation of the proposals emanating from Mr. Levene. If the Government want to lease those assets, there must be an opportunity for a full debate in the House. We are considering not only the efficiency of the dockyards, but the efficiency and morale of Britain's naval fleet as a whole.

I know that the Minister may say that the allocation of time is a matter for the Leader of the House, but persuasive influences can be brought to bear. The announcement to lease assets must not be made in a written answer — there must be an opportunity for a full and frank debate.

I know that some unions, especially the Civil Service Union, have already made representations to the Minister about their fears. Those fears are valid in view of the Mallabar report which examined leasing and the Speed report of 1981 which examined and rejected that. We must have certain assurances. What will be the position of the nuclear facilities in Rosyth and elsewhere? Will they be leased to private concerns? Are the Government capable of setting aside those facilities and leasing only conventional facilities? Those serious matters have not been fully ventilated. The Government have not fully examined the issue.

The Secretary of State wants to be as good, or as bad, a privatiser as the former Secretary of State for Energy, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That might be related to political ambition. Ambition resides in all politicians, but ambition that might be used to the detriment of the nation's defence is something of which we should be chary.

I intervened earlier to question the Secretary of State about the Merchant Navy. It is simply not good enough for him to say that he will examine the Select Committee report and comment on its strictures. It is just two years after the Falkland crisis, but there is no mention of the Merchant Navy in the White Paper. I declare my interest in the shipbuilding industry. Those who are concerned with maintaining the fabric of the merchant fleet, both in ships and personnel, recognise that there has been a rapid decline in the British flag fleet; the Select Committee referred to that in paragraph 52. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to recognise the strategic importance of merchant shipping, while disregarding it when presenting the annual White Paper. That does not acknowledge the vital contribution that the merchant fleet has made and can make to defence.

If the right hon. Gentleman says that there will be further consultation with individuals in the service, he must appreciate that we are concerned not only with consultation but with obtaining detailed plans and assessment of the contribution that merchant shipping can make to the defence of Britain. Before Operation Corporate, the MOD had a list of ships. However, that is not sufficient — detailed knowledge is required of drawings and designs. We cannot get that unless the ships are British-manned under the British flag. We shall do ourselves a great disservice if we do not recognise that we allow the British merchant fleet to decline at our peril.

What about the threat that Europe faces from the Soviet Union? If we adopt the confidence-building methods emanating from Helsinki and Stockholm, NATO must not resort to an escalation of conventional war into nuclear war. We should seek access to information about the intentions of the other parties. The basic ingredient is how to remove fear. That is what the people of Europe and the world desire. I am interested in the American proposals for and the Soviet Union interest—albeit low key—in confidence-building methods. I hope that the arms control unit being established by the MOD will be useful in determining how both sides can gain notification of the intentions of the other side about troop movements and exercises.

I appreciate that this may be a Foreign Office matter, but I hope that the Minister can explain the Government's view on how we can give the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries information about our troop movements, and how we propose to obtain relevant information from them. In my view, a nuclear war would not occur instantaneously. There would be a build-up. That is why, if we could get information about the movement of troops and navies which allayed the fears of individuals and nations, we might be able to reduce the temperature throughout Europe and the world.

I urge the Minister to take cognisance of the situation in my constituency and similar areas. He has a responsibility to provide us with detailed information about the intentions, for example, of an important employer in Fife. I hope that he will be able to give that information when he replies to the debate.