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Chieftain Tanks

Volume 172: debated on Tuesday 15 May 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to make a decision concerning a replacement for the order of Chieftain tanks.

It remains our intention to reach a decision by the end of this year.

My hon. Friend will be aware from his recent visit to Leeds of the skills, commitment and investment by Vickers and its work force in its objective to produce the best tank in the world for the British Army. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that he has had an opportunity to examine the report on the second milestone and that that excellent company has passed that important test?

Yes. I am pleased to announce that Vickers Defence Systems has successfully passed the second milestone report. I am confident that if that progress is maintained, it will pass the third at the end of September. That process should allow completely fair competition, from which we shall select the tank best suited to the Army's requirements.

In selecting the tank best suited to meet the Army's requirements, does the Minister accept that it is necessary to take account of the threat and the need to meet that threat? Does he agree that it is necessary to resist any attempt to exact a crude percentage decrease in the defence budget and that we should ensure that the defence budget is adequate to meet the United Kingdom's continuing requirements?

I very much welcome what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. That thinking is in the forefront of my right hon. Friend's mind when examining the various options for change in our defence procurement and spending.

In the future battlefield of central Europe—[Interruption.]—force levels may be less. Therefore, when reviewing what tank to select to replace the Chieftain, will my hon. Friend examine with the closest care the possibility of ordering dedicated anti-tank helicopters at an early date?

I do not go along with my hon. Friend's view that the next battlefield will necessarily be found in central Europe. However, Her Majesty's forces must be prepared to counter Her Majesty's enemies in any theatre. To give them the efficiency and capability that they need, it is necessary to address the correct mix between helicopters and armour.

What is the Government's present defence procurement policy? Does the Minister accept that the jobs of those who work in the defence industries, such as those at Barnbow, are proving to be the most precarious in the present climate of disarmament? If that company were not to get the contract, what practical alternatives would the Government suggest to ensure that there is job security for those people in Leeds?

To my knowledge, there have been no redundancies so far in either establishment. However, the issue of redundancies and work allocation is entirely a matter for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has said about the stage that the replacement tank has reached at Barnbow. Does he agree that we are now in a state of such uncertainty in Europe that we must carefully consider replacing our weapons with the most modern systems that we can find to deal with any eventuality? Does he further agree that the comments of some Labour Members about the future of the Leeds tank factory—that it might be turned over to making dishwashers and washing machines in the future—is typical of the defence policies pursued by the Labour party?

Yes. None the less, the Labour party's concept of an arms conversion agency with a central corporate directive ideology remains an interesting concept echoed only in the Soviet Union, which is hardly an example of high economic efficiency.