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Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 5 May 1987

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence by what percentage expenditure on conventional defence has risen in real terms since 1979.


asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current level of expenditure on conventional forces in real terms; and what was the level of expenditure in 1979.

In the last complete financial year the provision for defence expenditure was 26 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1978–79.

In 1978–79 expenditure on our conventional forces was some £14,400 million at 1986–87 prices. Last year, on the same price basis, and excluding Falklands expenditure, it was some £17,400 million—£3,000 million higher in real terms.

Over the whole period since we have been in office expenditure on our conventional forces, excluding Falklands expenditure, has totalled some £16,000 million more in real terms than would have been the case if expenditure had remained at its 1978–79 level.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an impressive rate of increase and that it fulfills previous manifesto commitments? Will he confirm that that figure would not be greatly altered by any changes in expenditure on Britain's nuclear deterrent?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As we have said on many occasions, expenditure on Trident over the lifetime of that programme represents only about 3 per cent. of the defence budget.

Has the Minister taken notice of the ever-increasing evidence which shows that by going ahead with the Trident project our conventional forces have been placed in jeopardy? Indeed, it has been suggested in some quarters that Britain can no longer be properly defended. Is that not the warning that has been given repeatedly over months and years from the Opposition Benches? Would it not appear that the Government's chickens are now coming home to roost?

If the hon. Gentleman heard my original answer he will, I hope, appreciate that our conventional forces are £16,000 million less in jeopardy than they were when his party left office.

Essential to our conventional defence is the ability to produce and maintain certain armaments. My right hon. Friend knows that the Royal Ordnance factory in Nottingham has a unique facility for gun making. Does he not agree that it is essential, in the national interest, that that gun making facility is retained in the United Kingdom?

I am aware of the important defence facility in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I am sure that the quality of that will be taken into account fully by the new management of the establishment.

In spite of the increase in expenditure, is the Minister satisfied that we have sufficient supplies of modern helicopters, modern frigates and modern fighters?

In all those three areas we have made a substantial amount of progress since 1979. Unlike the Labour party, we are maintaining the essential requirement of balance between nuclear and conventional defences.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the growth in spending in real terms on conventional forces has led to the development of real jobs in Shrewsbury? Is he further aware that the policies of the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party, as put forward by their Front Bench spokesmen, would lead to the loss of those jobs in Shrewsbury? If Trident were to be cancelled, the cancellation costs would diminish further the conventional budget and lead to further job losses.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to draw the attention of the House to the fact that if the Trident programme were cancelled there would be a serious loss of jobs. As for jobs arising from expenditure on conventional forces, the commitment of the Opposition Front Bench to their long term objective to reduce defence expenditure to the average of the major NATO countries would result in a one third reduction in conventional expenditure by a Labour Government.

Is the Minister aware that an 86 per cent. increase still masks a decline in our escort fleet from 66 craft in 1980 to 48, as estimated by Jane's Defence Weekly next week?

We have had a policy since 1981 of a destroyer and frigate force of about 50. That is still our policy. The capabilities of the destroyer and frigate force today are a quantum jump ahead of what they were at the end of the 1970s.