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Volume 974: debated on Tuesday 27 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on his proposals for the replacement of Polaris.

As I have stated on a number of occasions in the House, the Government are firmly committed to maintaining the effectiveness of our strategic nuclear deterrent.

Does the Secretary of State dispute the estimate of £3 billion to £4 billion—rather more than the cost of Concorde—that was supplied to the Expenditure Committee in its recent important study of the replacement cost of Polaris? If the right hon. Gentleman does not dispute that figure, does he believe that it makes economic sense for Britain, in its present condition, to invest on that scale in the production of a weapon for which there is no conceivable export market?

The Government are still considering the options for and possibilities of a successor system. It follows that no decision has been reached and that I can give no figure. Naturally, the costs and estimates of the various possibilities must be taken fully into account in coming to a conclusion. It is fair to say that, historically, the contribution that the nuclear deterrent has made to peace has represented a comparatively small proportion of our defence budget.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us see a decision on the replacement of Polaris as an urgent responsibility for the Government? However, in view of the significant progress by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries in anti-submarine warfare and detection, will my right hon. Friend consider carefully the airborne and land-based systems as an alternative to the inordinately expensive Trident series? Will my right hon. Friend please ensure that the House has an opportunity to consider fully any decision before the Government announce it?

Our view is that the theatre nuclear forces in NATO represent the more immediate problem, which we are tackling. We thought that if we could we would take a decision on a successor system in the next few months. When we came into office we thought that a year or 18 months would be about right. We hope that we shall be able to reach a conclusion within the next few months. The question of a debate is not a matter for me, but I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will note the request, which I have made myself.

Has the Secretary of State's attention been drawn to the large majority decision taken by the British Council of Churches last week against this proposition? In view of the enormous expense involved, at a time when the Conservative Government are cutting back on social services, does such a decision make any sense at all?

I am aware of the view of the British Council of Churches. There are a number of views on this difficult and important matter. They all require to be fully considered, and we are considering them all. The Government's opinion is that the nuclear deterrent has contributed significantly to the peace that we have known for the last 30 years. Our determination is to try to do everything that we can to ensure that that continues. The right hon. Gentleman will know that this is an extremely serious matter. Of course we have given full weight to the various views that have been expressed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the opinion poll taken three weeks ago, which showed that 91 per cent. of the population of Britain was in favour of more money being spent on defence and on a change for Polaris? Is he also aware that 87 per cent. of Labour Party supporters in that poll supported that view?

I am aware of that opinion poll. I say to my hon. Friend and to the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) that defence is not cheap. Indeed, it is expensive for all countries. The object of our defence policy is to secure our freedom and to protect the realm at the minimum cost. However, all those involved must play their due parts. Defence is expensive, but the nuclear element in it represents a surprisingly small proportion of total defence expenditure.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, whatever views are held in the House, these are grave issues indeed? I welcome what he said about the need to debate these issues in due course.

I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a report in The Times today, which refers to his minute of 21 June. Has he placed a copy of the minute in the Library of the House? What information has he so far released as a result of it? Will he undertake to think hard about this matter and release more information than in the past, taking into account the interests of security when they are involved, so that we can have a proper debate on this grave issue?

I do not wish to speculate on any press article. That would not be wise. I wish to pursue a policy of releasing as much information as possible, bearing in mind the interests of national security. We have been forthright in trying to lead a public debate and in making the facts and figures available wherever possible. However, we must bear in mind that it would be wrong to release information that might involve national security.