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Procurement Programme

Volume 87: debated on Tuesday 26 November 1985

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6.

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what are the priorities in his weapons procurement programme.

I refer my hon. Friend to the details given in chapter four of the 1985 "Statement on the Defence Estimates", which describes the equipment that is coming into service or being developed for the armed forces to enable them to discharge their responsibilities to greatest effect.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of those priorities, will my hon. Friend assure the House that we shall never again see such a scandalous fiasco as the Nimrod programme? When can he come to the House and make a statement on the cost of Ptarmigan?

Obviously, the Nimrod programme causes the Government considerable anxiety, and I hope to come to the House to make an announcement. At present we have completed our technical evaluation of options for development to an acceptable operating standard. We are discussing with the company proposals to reach that stage of development on a fixed-price basis. My hon. Friend is right in saying that this is a serious matter.

Is the Minister aware that the phrase, "We would not mind getting back into chemical weapons, if the public could be persuaded," is a non-attributable phrase used by certain senior Whitehall officials? In view of the fact that the Secretary of State's answers to my recent questions have been evasive, ambiguous and insulting to people who have a right to know what Government policy is, will the Minister make a definitive statement about the Government's attitude to chemical weapons?

We are trying to negotiate arms controls, and we are not planning to develop our chemical weapons. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has stated the position to the House on many occasions.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the regional economic dimension of weapons procurement policy, and consider the number of jobs, for example, on Tyneside, that are dependent on defence industries? Will he order his procurement policy in such a way that sufficient orders staged in the right way are maintained for such areas to keep the number of jobs at least stable, and preferably growing, in those industries?

I note what my hon. Friend says. Obviously, with a £9 billion defence equipment budget, our first requirement must be value for money, and, in general, contracts must be awarded to the lowest bidders, but we also bear in mind the health of British industry. That is not to say that there are not occasions when other factors come into play.

What priority do the promises made to Swan Hunter shipbuilders on Tyneside have in the Minister's weapons procurement programme?

Swan Hunter has received large orders from the MOD in the past. Swan Hunter can tender for the type 23s in future, and it has done extremely well from the defence budget.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Trident programme has high priority and is important to Scotland because it provides steel orders for Ravenscraig, the tubes are made at Babcock, and because it provides jobs at Coulport and Rosyth? Does he agree, therefore, that Scotland has a deep interest in that programme, and that it should continue to have high priority?

The Trident programme has a critical role, which is much appreciated. It also has a significant effect on employment, because there are 17,000 direct jobs and 13,000 indirect jobs dependent upon it, which makes Opposition Members' concern about what will happen at Rosyth a little hypocritical.

Reverting to the question of the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), who started this exchange, what exactly does the phrase "acceptable technical standards" mean when applied to the new Nimrod radar? How does it differ from the original specifications laid down by the RAF for that type of radar? When with we have something to plug the gap in our radar defences?

The hon. Gentleman has, if I may say so, been here long enough to know that his first question cannot be answered in public.

Does not the fact that one of the major priorities for the Government's defence procurement is the Trident missile system mean that there has been undue delay in the placing of other contracts for conventional weapon systems and that some of the equipment being used by our forces is becoming increasingly outdated? By concentrating on Trident and not spending money on conventional forces, is not the Minister missing an opportunity to raise the nuclear threshold?

It certainly does not mean that, because Trident takes 3 per cent. of the defence budget and 6 per cent. of the equipment budget. Furthermore, Britain spends as a proportion of its total defence budget a higher proportion on equipment than any other country in NATO.