Statement on the Defence Estimates

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:37 pm on 17th June 1993.

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet 9:37 pm, 17th June 1993

I think that, in round figures, there will be a saving of up to £10 million, but all that will come out during the consultation period.

I am bound to confess that I have an advantage here. Because of ministerial defence cuts, the House now has only three defence Ministers; the Opposition, overstaffed as always, have four defence spokesmen. One Minister must therefore speak twice during this two-day debate and I shall be opening the Monday debate. It is possible that, because of the breadth and depth of some of the topics that have been covered today, they would best be dealt with on Monday: I am thinking particularly of nuclear issues, the European fighter aircraft and one or two other matters. However, I shall do my best to answer the points that have been raised today, in so far as that is possible.

The hon. Member for South Shields opened his speech —as he often does, courteously and correctly—by paying tribute to our armed forces and to MOD civilians. Naturally, I share his view. Apart from that common ground, however, I considered his speech a rubbish of an oration. It contained not a word of constructive thought or policy on the future defence of our country; it was one long whine and whinge about a so-called collection of scandals, which became markedly less scandalous on examination.

One of the first great scandals unearthed by the hon. Gentleman—it dated back to 1988; he was digging quite deep—related to the extra money that he thought had been wasted on submarine refits. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a history lesson. He will recall that, in the wake of dramatic events in eastern Europe in the late 1980s, we had to review the size of our planned nuclear submarine fleet. We concluded that a smaller fleet would be sufficient in the new strategic environment and I do not think that the Opposition disagree with that conclusion. In September 1990, following careful analysis, we decided to pay off two submarines, HMS Warspite and HMS Churchill. It was, of course, a difficult decision, in view of the expenditure already incurred on their refits; but our assessment showed that paying them off was the right decision and the best way of saving the taxpayer the maximum amount.

As the hon. Gentleman will recall, those developments were started by no less than the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. That is a significant date: HMS Warspite's refit had begun in March 1988 and HMS Churchill's in April 1989. Planning for the refits had begun even earlier. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman foresaw the fall of the Berlin wall; I wonder whether he anticipated that we might need fewer submarines. I think that the Government made a sensible decision. There was nothing scandalous about it; in the long run, it was in the best interests of the defence budget.

So much for the hon. Gentleman's first scandal. His second was all about shipping fraud during the Gulf crisis. It would not have been the first or last conflict in which one or two people may have profiteered; I draw no conclusions, but that happens. Let us put the matter in context, however. The Gulf war deployment was the largest deployment of troops and equipment since the second world war, involving 46,000 personnel, 46,000 tonnes of freight, 87,000 tonnes of ammunition and 7,000 containers. It was our own internal audit investigation that uncovered evidence that there might have been some irregularities in the ship chartering process. We called in the MOD police fraud squad to investigate; the results of that investigation were passed to the Crown Prosecution Service in November last year. We cannot say more now for fear of prejudicing any prosecutions; but the notion that the MOD has been involved in some murky cover-up or scandal is not justified. I think that we did the only thing that we could do in the circumstances: we conducted a thorough investigation of what may have happened. I can say no more than that.