HC Deb 04 February 1970 vol 795 cc421-4
44. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion, expressed as a percentage, of the combatant ground forces is contributed by each of the member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and is at the service of the Supreme Commander.

Mr. Healey

It is not for me to give details of the forces assigned by other N.A.T.O. countries, but I would refer my right hon. Friend to the publication "The Military Balance" issued by the Institute of Strategic Studies which will give him a fairly reliable general picture.

Mr. Shinwell

My right hon. Friend is closely associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He cannot shove it under the carpet. It is desirable to retain forces in Europe, but does not he recognise that, now that the Canadian Brigade has withdrawn, France has opted out, and the Belgian and Dutch forces are negligible, we are being asked to bear an excessive burden in proportion to the totality of forces in Europe?

Mr. Healey

I do not think that that is the case. It is worth pointing out that the European members of N.A.T.O., unlike the North American members, have substantially increased their contributions since the Czech crisis and are taking effective steps to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of the Canadian Brigade. A very much bigger contribution is made by West Germany than by us to ground forces in Europe.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Is not the important point here that American forces are to be reduced in Europe? Is it not time the Government started making plans now for that contingency when it arises? How can they go on cutting our defence budget when the Americans are starting to go home?

Mr. Healey

If the hon. Gentleman attended our proceedings more regularly, he would know that I referred—[Interruption.]—in the defence debate a year ago, and also the year before that—

Sir G. Nabarro

On a point of order. Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, for the Secretary of State wrongly to impute absenteeism to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)? Should he not withdraw that innuendo at once?

Mr. Speaker

It has been traditionally in order for a Minister to be right or wrong.

Mr. Healey

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) should be aware that, in the defence debate a year ago, and in the debate the year before that, I referred to this possibility and also mentioned some of the steps which the British Government were taking to deal with it. He would also have known that the British forces in the Rhine Army are up by 3,000 on the number left by the Conservative Administration in 1964.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) is a member of Western European Union Assembly and a very assiduous attender there? While he is serving there, he cannot be in this House and therefore is it not a smear to impugn his integrity and the services which he gives us? Could the right hon. Gentleman correct that figure of 3,000, because, as he knows, until he restores these troops the actual number on the ground in Germany is less today than when he took office?

Mr. Healey

There seems some disagreement between hon. Members opposite whether the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) was here or not and, if he were not, what was the reason. If he has attended W.E.U., he should surely know what steps the Government have taken and propose to take to deal with the situation to which he referred.

Mr. Maudling

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that he is doing a service to his office by employing smears of this kind? Before he said it, did he check up on the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)?

Mr. Healey

I have attended every debate on defence in this House over the last five years and I am well aware which have been attended by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and which have not. The facts which I have given show that his question was based on total ignorance of the Government's policies.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

On a point of order. Since the matter to which I was referring is almost entirely new—namely, the new decision of the American Government, which could not have been known in the detail in which it now is known to this House—will the right hon. Gentleman, in these circumstances, withdraw what he said and recognise that my absence from this House when there is a defence debate is for one reason only—because I am sent by the House to W.E.U., N.A.T.O. or the Council of Europe?

Mr. Healey

I have no desire unfairly to criticise the hon. Member. But if he now admits that he was not present at the debates, he cannot blame me for referring to the fact that he was not present. If there has been any suggestion that his absence was due to improper reasons, then, of course, I made no such implication, and any belief that I did is a mistake.

I should point out to the House that no decision has been taken by the United States Government to reduce their forces, but the probability of some reduction in American forces during this decade was mentioned three years ago by the then American Defence Secretary, Mr. McNamara, and was referred to later by President Johnson and also by Mr. Clifford, who was by then Defence Secretary, two years ago. There has been no new decision since then. What has happened is a very welcome decision announced by President Nixon that no reduction will take place at least before the middle of next year. Whether a reduction will then take place has not been decided.