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Manufacturing Industry (Defence Sector)

Volume 165: debated on Wednesday 17 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he has any plans to help the defence sector of manufacturing industry to seek alternative products in view of the military implications of developments in eastern Europe.

I thank the Minister for that answer, which is a bit of an improvement on his answer last time, when he was extremely glib.

Does the Minister accept that the major problem in Britain is that more than 500,000 people are employed in the defence industry which, in the past three years, has earned the country an average £1 billion in foreign exchange? Does he accept that if the defence talks and the changes taking place in eastern Europe continue, our defence manufacturers will have to look for alternative products? The Government should be assisting them in that and encouraging them to look for peaceful collaboration in eastern Europe.

The hon. Gentleman is at least persistent: he asked precisely the same question on 1 November 1989. That suggests that he is running out of ideas and in need of early retirement.

The motive behind the question has absolutely nothing to do with industrial strategy. The Labour party is up to its old tricks of cutting defence expenditure but trying to make it sound respectable. If anyone doubts that, he should bear in mind the fact that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is a long-standing unilateralist who prides himself on having voted against the Defence Estimates long before the relaxation in international tension.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the defence industries have a good record of diversifying into other commercial products, and that that diversification is being held up only by damaging strikes of the sort from which British Aerospace is suffering at Preston near my constituency?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Labour party is committed to a form of central economic planning. Page 88 of its policy review says on the subject:

"A Labour government will therefore consult unions and employers about the establishment of an Arms Conversion Agency which, within Labour's national industrial strategy, could take on the special role of providing new industries and new jobs."
That is the sort of central economic strategy and planning that eastern European countries are throwing away with contempt.

Will the Minister return to the peaceful developments in eastern Europe and confirm that since 1979 our trade with almost every country in eastern Europe has gone into deficit? This flatfooted Government have been left at the starting line while the West Germans, the Japanese and most of our other competitors have been building up trade with eastern Europe. What will the Government do about that?

Let us focus on the real issue; let us not waste our time with red herrings of the sort advanced by the hon. Gentleman. The Opposition say that they are better at industry than the major companies which have been doing so well in the defence sector. That is rubbish. There may be a case for adjusting markets and seeking new products, but that is a matter for the companies concerned, not for Opposition Members.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom defence industry has been a major success over the years and that that is one reason why democracy is breaking out all over eastern Europe? Does he agree that defence is a legitimate purpose for any country, and that British defence exports have helped to support the defence capabilities of many countries? Does he further agree that 500,000 jobs in the industry would be jeopardised if Labour came to power and implemented the proposals in the question of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett)?

It is much worse than that. The Labour party conference committed itself to a reduction of £5 billion in defence spending, or a 30 per cent. reduction in Britain's conventional defence capacity. That would lead to massive unemployment.

Does the Minister recall the Prime Minister saying that Mr. Gorbachev was a man whom she could do business with? Given that, is it not very disappointing that the Department of Trade and Industry seems to have been so unsuccessful in taking advantage of the new industrial opportunities in the large market of 420 million people in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? Is not the Government's policy one of unilateral industrial disarmament, and are they not failing to take advantage of the new market that is on offer?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady, who I always thought was a rather respectable character when it came to the point, should be speaking in terms of unilateral disarmament of any kind. I clearly remember what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about Mr. Gorbachev, and I have no doubt that the relaxation in international tension is due, at least in part, to what the Prime Minister has done in that connection. I also remember what the Prime Minister said about the dangers of relaxing our defensive capacity until we see how this matter will end.

Will my hon. Friend examine the speed at which his Department issues defence export licences? Delays in issuing those licences are a brake on successful export industries, notably in my constituency. Does he agree that the best thing for our defence export industries and especially for the Property Services Agency, which is being privatised, would be to allow them to compete internationally for the excellent defence-related services that they provide?

I am concerned at my hon. Friend's suggestion that there is unreasonable delay in the DTI over issuing licences. If my hon. Friend has specific points, I should be pleased to hear them. I hope that he will give me or my colleagues the details of the complaints.

We are making slow progress today. If we had briefer supplementary questions we might get briefer answers and could make more progress.