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White Paper

Volume 26: debated on Tuesday 29 June 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to publish the defence White Paper.

The statement on the Defence Estimates for 1982 was published last Tuesday.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we support and applaud his decision to publish the White Paper, particularly his commitment to publish the addendum on the Falkland Islands when the results of that operation are known?

Is he further aware that many of us support and applaud his decision to retain "Intrepid" and "Fearless"—a decision which was made well before the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands—as evidence of our commitment to the amphibious operation that is so important to our defence of the northern flank?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support of my decision to publish the White Paper. I was glad to be able to look at the matter of "Intrepid" and "Fearless" again towards the end of last year. They form a substantial and important part of our amphibious capability.

Does the Secretary of State recall the statement on page 12 of the White Paper that the Royal Navy is in the middle of a major programme of new warship construction? Will he confirm that that is a major programme only because of orders placed by the Labour Government, and that planned numbers of carriers, destroyers, frigates, attack submarines, Sea Harriers, Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and Royal Marine Commandos are all distinctly down compared with the situation inherited from the previous Administration, despite recent events?

About 28 modern warships are under construction in the yards at the moment. Because Britain suffered under the misfortune of Labour Governments over several years, a large proportion of the orders were placed by Labour Governments.

In the current financial year the Government are to spend £½ billion more in real terms on the Royal Navy's conventional programme than the Labour Government spent. The hon. Gentleman has nothing to criticise in our programme for the Royal Navy.

In view of the remarks by a senior NATO commander that there is a clear case for an increase in defence expenditure by NATO countries, that the cost of weapons systems is increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and that certain weaknesses in our missile systems have been brought out in the recent conflict in the South Atlantic, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a clear case for increasing defence expenditure in Britain?

There is no evidence so far that our missile systems were unsuccessful. The evidence is that all our missile systems performed extremely well. Clearly, we must look into that further in the next few months.

No one would be more happy than I if there were an increase above the 3 per cent. in defence expenditure. The threat grows, and it is substantial. However, as my hon. Friend knows, the Government's present policy is to devote a yearly 3 per cent. real increase in defence expenditure in accordance with the aims of NATO.

Will the Secretary of State give a clear and unequivocal answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy)? Is not the Government's policy, as embodied in the Defence Estimates, to reduce the size of major warships down to frigates in the Royal Navy for the next decade?

As the decade moves on, there will be fewer destroyers than frigates in the Fleet than was planned when the Labour Party was in Government. Nevertheless, it is true that the conventional naval programme is taking a larger share of this year's defence budget than it took when the Labour Party was in office. There has been some reduction in our forward plans, because we took a policy decision to spend more on weapons systems, such as torpedoes and Sea Wolf, than on platforms. That was a conscious policy decision and it was right. There is no point in having a frigate that is not properly equipped and armed.

Is it not a fact that, leaving aside Polaris and so on, 28 per cent. of the defence budget is spent on the conventional Navy and that, according to the Secretary of State's plans, the percentage will drop as the decade progresses?

About 28 per cent. of the total defence budget this year will be spent on the conventional Navy. The figure was about 27·9 per cent. when the Labour Government were in power. When Trident is introduced the percentage spent on the Navy will increase. Trident is a crucial part of the Royal Navy, and I see no reason to exclude it from any discussion of our defence policy.