HC Deb 30 November 1964 vol 703 cc28-30
40. Mr. Kershaw

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he proposes to bring the British Army of the Rhine up to 55,000 men.

Mr. Healey

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Secretary of State made clear in Bonn on 29th October, we accept this commitment, but the date must depend on our other overseas commitments and the rate of recruitment for the Regular Army.

Mr. Kershaw

What does that mean? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the uncertainty aroused by that Answer and by the pronouncements of the Chancellor of the Exchequer leaves us very much in the air? Is he further aware that the dangers outside Europe are very great but that the diplomatic necessity of staying in Europe makes it very desirable to do so? Where exactly do these inspired leaks come from? Do they not come from Chequers? Should not the Paymaster-General look into the question of how these reports came to be in the Press at the weekend?

Mr. Healey

The hon. Gentleman asked what my statement meant. It meant exactly the same as was meant by my predecessor in January and repeated by the then Seretary of State for War on 11th March last: It remains our objective to reach a strength of 55,000 as soon as we can, dependent on recruitment and commitments in other overseas spheres."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th March, 1964; Vol. 691, c. 412.]

Mr. Goodhart

Will the right hon. Gentleman look into the question of how it was that contradictory briefings were given to the Press? This has increased the confusion.

Mr. Shinwell

If we wanted to fulfil this commitment—which was not fulfilled by the previous Government—is it not essential that the West German Government should make a substantial contrition to the support costs?

Mr. Healey

I think that there is a general feeling on both sides of the House that our responsibilities in this respect would be easier to carry out if the West German Government were more prepared to help meet the cost in foreign exchange.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question? Obviously, inspired briefings of the Press took place at the weekend. Almost every Sunday newspaper gave out the statement that B.A.O.R. is to be cut down and that statement must cause the very gravest concern everywhere. Can we not get to a stage where at least we have some statement about which rôles the Government are to keep and which they are to abandon?

Mr. Healey

With the right hon. Gentleman's experience in this office, he will know how difficult it is to determine what the Press will say on any particular day on any particular subject. On the question of the priority of defence rôles which the Government intend to fulfil, I shall, of course, make my statement as soon as possible. The right hon. Gentleman consistently failed to give any guidance on this matter during his two years of office.

Mr. Michael Foot

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many of us think that the commitment by a previous Government to keep a British Army of this size in Germany until the end of the century was one of the most irresponsible commitments ever made by a British Government? Will he also bear in mind that this view seems to have been upheld by the fact that the last Government were never able to carry out the pledge? Many of us on this side of the House would give him very strong support if he took up with our allies the question of reducing this figure very drastically to one commensurate with the country's economic position?

Mr. Healey

I take note of what my hon. Friend has said. Perhaps I can remind him that the commitment which right hon. Gentlemen opposite originally undertook to fulfil was considerably larger than that of the 55,000 men to which the present Government remain committed.