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Local Authority Discussions

Volume 264: debated on Tuesday 24 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with local authorities in the last year to discuss changes to the size of the defence industry. [36575]

We try to involve local authorities by giving them early warning of changes to defence requirements for land and buildings, and we seek their help in finding alternative uses when those lands and buildings are no longer required.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that, since 1979, more than 345,000 highly skilled people have been paid off from the defence industry? Is it not about time that the Government formed a diversification agency to employ those people? The worry in the communities where those redundancies have occurred is that, without some action, those skills will be lost to their future generations.

We consider that decisions on how to adapt to changes in market circumstances and what products to make are for the commercial judgment of companies. I must say that, if ever there were a Labour Government again, no company would be likely to ask for the advice of Labour Ministers on how to run industry, because they have never run a whelk stall.

In his discussions with local authorities and defence industry leaders, can my hon. Friend reassure them that Her Majesty's Government are using their best efforts to ensure an equitable work share on important collaborative programmes, such as the Eurofighter 2000? That programme has been seriously delayed because the Germans are insisting on a bigger work share than that to which they are entitled according to their production requirements.

I can indeed confirm that the Eurofighter 2000 programme is intended to form the cornerstone of our air defence in the next century. If the cuts in defence spending proposed by many Opposition Members ever came into effect, we would have to have far more discussions with local authorities than we do now; then perhaps even Labour councils might begin to recognise that one cannot trust Labour on defence.

Why will the Minister not accept that the real problems facing many areas are as a result of the downsizing of the defence industry? Instead of using the cheap political rhetoric that we have just heard, why will he not accept the responsibility of Government to set up a defence diversification agency to work with industry and local authorities to deal with the problem?

So did I. It is not cheap political rhetoric; it is in fact the truth. None the less, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I feel sure that he will carry them out very effectively. I am pleased to be able to say that our recent decision, for example, on the Rosyth naval base, which I announced last Tuesday, had the full support and involvement of Fife regional council. That decision has been widely welcomed. We are grateful for the input of local authorities. We do not believe that a defence diversification agency would add anything to the conversations which we have already had.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, were the policies of the Opposition to come into force, there would not simply be diversification of our defence industries but destruction of them? Not only can we not trust the Labour party on defence but the Labour party itself does not trust Labour on defence, judging from the policies that it advocates and the votes that were not taken at the Labour party conference.

I could not have put it better myself. In fact, I did put it like that myself.