HC Deb 03 December 1974 vol 882 cc1351-69
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Roy Mason)

This statement will be somewhat longer than is normal at this hour, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for this, but I am sure that the House will acknowledge the importance of the issue.

On 21st March I announced the start of the most extensive and thorough review of our system of defence ever undertaken by a British Government in peace time. The proposals which I shall now outline are the result of a careful study of all the relevant considerations—defence, political, industrial and financial. They are designed for the circumstances which we must expect over the next 10 years. They take account, on the one hand, of our economic situation and, on the other, of the threat to our national security, the overriding importance of NATO, our position as a leading European Power and our responsibilities overseas. They will provide for a modern and effective defence structure and will make a significant contribution to establishing our economic health and thus to strengh-ening the alliance.

The Government have decided that they should reduce defence expenditure as a proportion of gross national product from its present level of 5½ per cent. to 4½ per cent. over the next 10 years. The long-range estimates of defence expenditure as they stood in March 1974 would have amounted to 6 per cent. of gross national product in 1978–79 and 5½ per cent. in 1983–84. By comparison with those plans, our decision will save £300 million in 1975–76, about £500 million a year by 1978-79 and some £750 million a year by 1983-84—or a total over the whole period up to that date of about £4,700 million. This is fully consistent with our repeated pledges to reduce the cost of defence as a proportion of our national resources.

In addition to deciding the general scale of the programme needed to meet our future defence requirements and the level of resources we can devote to defence, the Government have reached provisional conclusions about the force levels involved and the implications for our commitments, for the Armed Forces and for industry. We are today beginning our consultations with our allies in NATO. These consultations will be thorough and genuine. They are likely to last into the new year. We are also consulting our Commonwealth partners concerned and the other Governments in other parts of the world who will or might be affected. We shall also now consult both sides of industry.

First I will describe the general principles that we have followed in conducting the review. NATO is the linchpin of British security and will remain the first charge on the resources available for defence. We therefore propose to concentrate as a first priority upon those areas in which we believe that we can most effectively contribute to the security of the alliance and of the United Kingdom. These consist of our contributions of land and air forces in the central region of Europe, of sea and air forces to the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas, and in the defence of the United Kingdom and its immediate approaches. We shall also maintain the effectiveness of our Polaris force.

We shall, however, be discussing with our NATO allies all aspects of our contribution, including particularly our force declarations to NATO in the Mediterranean and the specialist reinforcement forces that we committed to the alliance in 1968. In the NATO area we propose to maintain our land and air contribution to the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force, but to reduce our other NATO declarations of specialised reinforcement forces to an airportable brigade group and a Royal Marine Commando group, with the necessary accompanying sea and air elements. These latter declarations would be available for the central region or the northern flank of NATO, with the Commando group specially trained and equipped for arctic warfare.

The priority we are giving to our NATO contribution necessarily requires a contraction in our commitments outside the alliance. We have reviewed these commitments case by case, bearing particularly in mind the decisions taken by the Labour Government in 1968 about the reduction of the British presence east of Suez. We have concluded that substantial reductions in our forces and defence facilities can be made. But we shall not act precipitately, and we shall discuss our proposals in detail with our allies and partners in the Commonwealth and elsewhere before taking final decisions, recognising that the timing and method of the changes we propose may be of particular importance.

Subject to these provisos, I wish to tell the House what we have in mind. We shall, of course, maintain our obligations towards our remaining dependent territories. We intend to keep our forces in Hong Kong, although we propose to make some reductions in them and to seek from the Hong Kong Government a larger percentage of their cost when the present cost-sharing agreement runs out in 1976.

In accordance with the military facilities agreement concluded in 1972 with the Government of Malta, we shall remain there until 1979. In Cyprus we propose to make some early reductions, particularly in our air forces stationed there. We propose to withdraw our forces stationed under the Five-Power defence arrangements in South-East Asia with the exception of a small group which we will continue to contribute to the integrated air defence system. The consultative provisions of the Five-Power defence arrangements would, however, remain in force, and it would certainly be our intention to maintain close links with the armed forces and defence authorities of our partners. We would, of course, maintain our membership of CENTO and SEATO but without declaring specific forces to either.

We propose to withdraw from Brunei the Gurkha battalion at present stationed there. We would withdraw our forces from Gan and Mauritius. We do not think it would be right in present circumstances to make any changes in the arrangements we have with the Sultan of Oman. We intend to enter into negotiations with the South African Government with a view to terminating the Simonstown Agreement. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"]

Given the effects of these decisions in the Indian Ocean area and the Soviet naval presence there, we have decided to agree to proposals from the United States Government for a relatively modest expansion of the facilities on the island of Diego Garcia which they enjoy, jointly with us, under an existing agreement with Her Majesty's Government. Their use of the facilities other than for routine purposes would, however, be a matter for joint decision of the two Governments. We and the United States Government have also agreed to pursue consultations with the aim of developing realistic progress towards arms limitation in the Indian Ocean.

In working out the implications of these principles in terms of force levels and their effects on the three Services, priority has been given to maintaining as far as possible the level and quality of our front-line forces. We shall equip them in a manner commensurate with their roles and responsibilities, and restructure and reduce the support area to match the new size and shape of the front line. The effects of our proposals on the forward plans of the three Services as they stood in March 1974 would be broadly as follows.

The Royal Navy's planned numbers of frigates, destroyers and mine counter-measures vessels would be reduced by about one-seventh, of conventional submarines by one-quarter, and of afloat support by one-third. Planned new ship construction would be reduced accordingly, including the abandonment of plans to replace our amphibious ships with new purpose-built vessels, and ship refitting would be concentrated on the Royal Dockyards, all of which will be retained. The nuclear-powered submarine and the cruiser programmes would be continued. We would reduce the numbers of the Royal Marines by one-seventh, disbanding one Commando in due course.

The Army's re-equipment plans would be substantially modified to reduce the growth of their cost. Measures would include the cancellation of the Vixen wheeled reconnaissance vehicle, withdrawal from the collaborative RS80 project for long-range rocket artillery, and reductions in the planned purchases of light helicopters and reconnaissance vehicles.

The Government attach great importance to the negotiations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries on the mutual reduction of forces and armaments in Central Europe. We are committed to seeking an outcome which, while preserving undiminished security for all the countries concerned, would help to create a more stable relationship in the area at a lower level of forces. We hope that the negotiations will be successful in achieving this objective. We do not propose, however, in advance of mutual and balanced force reductions, to reduce the forces which we maintain in Germany in accordance with our Brussels Treaty obligations. In adjusting the size and shape of the Army to meet the framework of priorities I have described and the demands of economy, the Government will make every effort to avoid a significant impact on the regimental system, with its historic loyalties and traditions. The Brigade of Gurkhas will be retained, mainly serving in Hong Kong. We shall maintain the size and roles of the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve.

In the case of the Royal Air Force, we intend to preserve, and in some instances improve, the combat air forces committed to NATO on the Continent and in the United Kingdom, and to continue with the MRCA collaborative programme, though we may have to make a reduction in the planned rate of deliveries over the period. However, in accordance with the revised tasks envisaged there would be some reduction in maritime patrol aircraft, and the RAF transport force would be progressively reduced by one-half and the planned helicopter force by one-quarter. There would also be some reduction in the RAF Regiment, and some 12 RAF stations in the United Kingdom would be closed.

We shall reduce planned expenditure on research and development by some 10 per cent. and continue vigorously to support the efforts being made within the alliance to increase standardisation in equipment and eliminate duplication in research and development.

Our proposals would involve reducing manpower by about 35,000 Service men compared with the strength in April this year, and by about 30,000 directly employed civilians, about half of whom would be civilians locally entered abroad. In the interests of efficiency, and equally of the well-being and morale of the forces themselves, the changes we propose will be carefully planned and introduced progressively over the next few years. Reductions will be achieved by normal wastage as far as possible, but some redundancies, both Service and civilian, will be unavoidable if the Services and the headquarters and outstations of the Ministry of Defence are to be adapted to the new range of commitments, and if the balance of ranks and ages necessary for a satisfactory career structure is to be preserved. Those who have to be made redundant will be offered fair terms, and time in which to plan their future employment. We shall be examining ways in which the Government can help with resettlement into civilian life.

The reductions in the planned defence programme are likely to reduce employment in the defence industries by only some 10,000, or 4 per cent., over the period up to 1978-79, but there will be problems in certain areas and for certain firms. But the changes in our equipment programme will be made as smoothly as possible and with the maximum notice to enable industry to adjust its plans. I am confident that these problems are manageable, and I am in close touch with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Employment and the Secretary of State for Industry on these aspects of the review. The views of both sides of industry will, of course, be taken fully into consideration.

Our decisions will, I repeat, save £300 million in 1975–76, about £500 million a year by 1978–79 and some £750 million a year by 1983–84. In conclusion I wish to emphasise one point. No such process of adaptation by the Armed Forces, or any other organisation, to a modified range of commitments and capabilities with a lower level of resources can be made without difficulty. But after we have completed the process of consultations on this thorough and wide-ranging review, and taken our final decisions, I am confident that Britain will continue to play her full part in preserving the strategy and cohesion of the NATO Alliance, and in meeting effectively her remaining commitments outside NATO. The Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force will remain highly effective forces, equipped to the highest standards as required by their front-line NATO tasks, and the Services and the Ministry of Defence, despite the changes we shall be making, will continue to offer a wide range of fine career opportunities in the years ahead.

Early next year, when our consultations with out allies and with industry have been concluded, I shall publish for parliamentary consideration a White Paper setting out our decisions in detail and saying how they are to be put into effect. But before this we wish not only to consult our allies and partners but to learn the views of right hon. and hon. Members upon these matters, and the Government will be ready to arrange through the usual channels for an early debate.

Mr. Peter Walker

The right hon. Gentleman has made a long statement which, as I am sure he agrees, affects the three armed Services and has considerable overseas implications. I hope, therefore, that he will realise the importance attached by the Opposition to having an early two-day debate on the statement.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition feel that when the Warsaw Pact countries have 50 per cent. more men under arms than has NATO, three times as many tanks and twice as many aircraft, and are spending an increasing amount on research, added to which we have considerable internal security problems, this is no time to propose cuts of the description announced by him?

The right hon. Gentleman said that 75,000 people will be made directly unemployed as a result of the cuts. Will he estimate the number who will be indirectly affected by the cuts, as that will substantially affect his figure?

Can the right hon. Gentleman defend a situation in which he announces, for example, substantial cuts in the submarine building programme and research at a time when the Soviet Union is massively increasing both research and submarine strength?

As to the announcement about the Simonstown Agreement, presumably the right hon. Gentleman is aware that 2,000 British ships use the Cape route each year, that 1 million tons of oil pass over that route each day and that in the last few years Soviet naval strength has quadrupled in the area. Is not his decision to come out of Simonstown and to use, with the Americans, another base many miles away from the vital sea routes concerned a more expensive and far less effective way of securing these vital trade routes?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say how he reconciles his objective of obtaining multilateral cuts in defence with a unilateral declaration by the Government that they are willing substantially to cut defence expenditure in this way?

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he intends to spend more money in certain spheres? For example, problems connected with the IRA and the defence of our North Sea installations seem to be in direct contradiction with his decision substantially to reduce our helicopter forces.

Have the Brunei Government agreed happily with the decision to withdraw the Gurkhas from Brunei? Presumably the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that results in no saving on defence expenditure as the Brunei Government pay the whole of the cost of that brigade.

We hope that the consultations referred to by the right hon. Gentleman will be genuine. Is he aware that per capita this country spends less on defence than the United States, France or Germany? Presumably his announcement today will reduce that position still further. We believe that if the Secretary of State genuinely consults, and does not just inform, he will come back with a White Paper next year substantially changing the proposals that he has now set out.

Mr. Mason

It will be interesting to take up the right hon. Gentleman's final challenge and to see how best we get on with our Commonwealth partners, the Americans and our NATO allies. The first meeting will be next week.

Referring to the charge made by the right hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his supplementary questions, he knows full well that the Conservative administration were bound on this path anyway. They arbitrarily cut defence by £250 million in nine months of last year alone. One proposal involved £178 million without working out where the cuts would fall. I have ascertained that analytical studies were put in hand before the previous administration left office. Therefore, they must have anticipated that they might have to tread the path that I have had to traverse.

Regarding jobs, I mentioned Service men and civilians employed by the Ministry of Defence. Ten thousand jobs in defence industries may be affected. It is likely that there could be more, but it is difficult yet to tell. All those industries that have been indirectly mentioned in my statement concerned with all the projects to which I referred—aircraft, shipbuilding, the Vixen wheeled reconnaissance vehicle and helicopters—have been contacted by the Ministry. They will be making their own assessments of the extent to which their employment levels will be affected, no doubt after discussions with the unions, and then we shall be ready to talk to them about the situation.

It is not fair to make a comparison between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] It is true that they have more men under arms than we have, but 85 per cent. of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet troops are conscripts, compared with an average of 35 per cent. to 40 per cent. of troops in NATO. We feel that professional, all-volunteer, well-trained and well-equipped forces are better. The comparison, therefore, was a little misleading.

I do not accept that if Simonstown goes it will be more expensive to operate beyond the Cape. It is self-evident from what I have said that there will be fewer reasons for us to deploy east of the Cape. Although the Royal Navy will still be able to deploy world-wide, it will be going east of the Cape in smaller numbers and making fewer visits. That means that, if necessary, it can take more afloat support. [Interruption.] The afloat support is being reduced commensurate with the reductions in the naval force. If a naval task force goes east of the Cape, the afloat support can go with it. It does not necessarily have to stay in Simonstown.

When my right hon. Friend has started the consultations hoping to terminate the agreement, there should be no reason why—as applies to other countries now— when the Royal Navy goes east of the Cape and has a vessel in difficulty it should not go into Simonstown and use the dry dock on a customer basis. I do not see why that should not happen.

The final point made by the right hon. Gentleman was on the IRA and Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that, having lessened our commitments abroad, we shall be better able to tackle all that we are called upon to do in Northern Ireland and to deal with internal security at home.

Mr. Peter Walker

What about Brunei?

Mr. Mason

It is true that there will be no saving in costs, but it is right to withdraw the Gurkha battalion from Brunei. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because, as I said, we are going to reduce the Gurkha forces.

Sir G. de Freitas

When my right hon. Friend has consultations with the other NATO defence Ministers, will he remind our North American allies that, although our defence rests very much on their enormous military forces, we and our West European neighbours provide 90 per cent. of NATO's ground forces in Europe, 80 per cent. of the naval forces and 75 per cent. of the air forces, and that there should be a general sharing of the burdens in NATO?

Mr. Mason

Yes. What my right hon. Friend said is absolutely true. When the American Congress considered the withdrawal of American troops from Europe and that factor became well known in Congress, that kind of outcry subsided. Our American allies are very keen that we should remain in the Eastern Atlantic. We are to maintain a strong naval presence in the Eastern Atlantic to keep those approaches clear in case it is necessary for European reinforcement.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that, in basing the defence review on cutting our proportion of GNP, it could be argued that our expenditure per capita is lower than that of many of our NATO allies and that this is an equally valid way of looking at the whole equation?

Throughout his statement the right hon. Gentleman emphasised heavily several times the importance of NATO. Will he tell us how significant are the consultations upon which he proposes to embark? Is it a question of telling our allies that this is what we are doing or of talking to them about the joint requirement? Will he be more specific about the quantitative reduction in our commitment to NATO? For example, is the Third Division to be withdrawn? Is 38 Group RAF to be withdrawn? Are there to be other reductions of that nature?

In what way will the right hon. Gentleman more vigorously prosecute the whole concept of standardising equipment, which we on the Liberal Bench believe to be the best long-term method of saving money and of obtaining the same effective defence?

Lastly, as time is brief, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us about the coastal defence of the North Sea, which was not mentioned in his statement, in which the balance against us is very serious at the moment? It is significant in view of North Sea oil discoveries.

Mr. Mason

The North Sea problem is the subject of a special study. I will, if possible, try to make a statement about that before the White Paper is issued.

If we achieve what we are aiming for, if we get defence expenditure as a percentage of GNP down to 4½ per cent. in 1983–84, our contribution will be lower than the German, if we include Berlin aid, and slightly above the French contributions. We shall also have carried out our commitment to bring that element into line with our major European allies. That has been, and is, our goal.

The consultations with our NATO allies will be genuine. We are obliged to give them eight weeks' notice. We have suggested NATO changes in the southern and northern flanks. If the NATO countries wish to explain to us a force deployment better for NATO strategy, we shall be prepared to listen and, if necessary, to change but still try to keep within the defence level of spending that I have outlined. The British Army of the Rhine and the Second Tactical Air Force stand firm. There are no withdrawals there.

In the Euro-group, I have been taking the lead with a view to getting more European nations involved in research and development and greater standardisation of weapons.

I think that I have dealt with the point about the North Sea. I hope that the House will remember that, apart from rigs and installations, people should think about soft targets on shore that are much more vulnerable than rigs and installations at sea.

Mr. Bidwell

As my right hon. Friend has announced it is the intention of the Government to cut defence expenditure by 1 per cent. in terms of the GNP—from 5½ per cent. to 4½ per cent.—may I ask whether that means an aim of 0.1 per cent. per year over the 10-year period in real terms? What does it really mean in terms of assisting the national economy? Does my right hon. Friend believe that what he has proposed seriously measures up to the desires of our movement to turn swords into plough-shares in order to rescue our national economic situation? Does not my right hon. Friend realise that what he has announced about the retention of Polaris submarines and Polaris bases will go right against the grain of the movement, which much prefers nuclear disarmament if we are to have any meaning in world affairs?

Mr. Mason

I have already explained that over the next 10 years we are trying to save £4,700 million that can be released for investment in productive capacity and, I hope, exports.

Secondly, we promised in our manifesto that we would save several hundred million pounds over a period and would bring our defence expenditure, as a percentage of GNP, into line with that of our major European allies. My statement outlines that, and we have achieved it.

The maintenance of the Polaris fleet costs about £40 million a year, less than 1 per cent. of the defence budget.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Has the right hon. Gentleman ever looked at a map? How does he reconcile his reductions in naval forces, in afloat support and in maritime aircraft with the words of his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, that Britain must trade with the world? Or is it that the right hon. Gentleman is being driven by pressures within the Labour Party to abandon all pretence of being able to protect our overseas trade?

Mr. Mason

Britain must trade with the world, but not necessarily police the world, and we have to recognise that as a fact. We have to consider the status of our nation, our role in Europe, and to what extent we can strengthen and keep cohesive, at least, the NATO alliance. That is essential at the moment because of the economies of some Western European countries and because of the worries that we have about the defence contribution of some countries in Europe. I do not want to affect the cohesion of the alliance.

I had to try to save about £100 million out of the £150 million a year that our non-NATO commitment costs us. I then had to look at the flanks of NATO. I have been able to effect more savings, while maintaining our posture of standing firm in Central Europe, having modern naval forces and a large contingent in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel, making sure that our home base is secure, being able to carry out our commitments in Northern Ireland and on internal security, and if necessary, being able to furnish forces for the United Nations. That is the posture that we should recognise.

Mr. Crawshaw

Is my right hon. Friend aware that concentrating our available forces in Europe and on NATO is something that I have advocated for many years? But I cannot praise my right hon. Friend too highly in case, by association, I damn him in the eyes of some of our right hon. Friends.

Will my right hon. Friend state what strategic considerations have been given to the reassessment? He will recall that our reserve forces were dissipated because they were said to be of no use in a war that was to last for only 14 days, and yet under this review we are to retain many items that can be of any use only in a war that goes on for some considerable time. I speak particularly of submarines. Are we preparing for a war of 14 days, 14 months, or what? We do not seem as though we shall be prepared against any of them.

Mr. Mason

I thought that that was a helpful supplementary question. The NATO strategy is based on flexible response, and irrespective of the kind of threat that comes from Eastern Europe, we should have forces within NATO available and flexible enough to respond to it. It is necessary, therefore, to maintain strong conventional forces on the ground so that we can, if necessary, rebut a conventional attack. Flowing from that, we must have time to think, ponder and consult Governments in case there has to be nuclear escalation.

My hon. Friend may be worried that we still have submarine forces and anti-submarine warfare equipment in the Atlantic, but it will be essential to keep these sea lanes free for reinforcement to take place if necessary. We want to try to keep the nuclear threshold high, and, therefore, naval contingents of the strength about which I have spoken and conventional forces in NATO are still essential.

Mr. Goodhart

Is not this another blow at the whole doctrine of flexible response? If the international situation continues to deteriorate, and if the military threat grows in the next couple of years, will the Government be prepared to reconsider this review and restore these damaging cuts?

Mr. Mason

That is a hypothetical question. We have taken a rational and responsible look at our defence commitment and our capabilities in the present economic circumstances of the nation, and I feel that the Conservative Party would have had to do the same.

We have proved in this exercise—and it has been a tortuous one—over the past seven to eight months that savings can be effected, and we have a new posture that is strengthening our hand in Europe. We have maintained throughout that NATO will remain the linchpin of our security.

Mr. Palmer

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the sensible and realistic reductions that he has made in defence expenditure. May I ask him to bear in mind that in our own time we have seen the forces of democracy—including Socialist democracy—overwhelmed on occasion by the forces of tyranny? Is he able to tell us that at the end of the day we can still make an adequate contribution to the defence of freedom in Europe and in the world?

Mr. Mason

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance. I am a fervent patriot, and I should not, as Secretary of State for Defence, allow the forces within Western Europe, in particular, to be run down whilst I am in that office to the point of which I personally should feel that the security of the State or the defence of the realm was in jeopardy.

During the course of this exercise I have had to take along with me the Chief of the Defence Staff and all the Chiefs of Staff, and, step by step, through the Defence Council, we have worked through every commitment. We—that is Ministers and Chiefs of Staff—are collectively satisfied that our posture is good and can be maintained.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his patriotic stand, which we all believe in, but may I put it to him that the alarm over his defence review stems from the cut in manpower, apart from the cut in weapons of defence? One can only be alarmed at the fact that the reduction in commitment has not been sufficient to justify such a cut in manpower. It amounts to about 70,000 men and takes in the supporting men to the Armed Forces. This fills one with some alarm. Before the right hon. Gentleman comes back to the House, would he say something about the creation of a citizen army by increasing the territorial and reserve forces, since otherwise there will not be sufficient manpower to carry out the commitments on which he is engaged?

Mr. Mason

The right hon. Gentleman may not have heard correctly the figures of manpower. Service manpower will be reduced by 35,000. That will be 5,000 from the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, 12,000 from the Army and 18,000 from the Royal Air Force. He will have gathered that the considerable cuts in transport aircraft, particularly the strategic transport aircraft, are the reason why the RAF faces a bigger manpower cut than the other Services. There are 30,000 civilians affected, of whom 15,000 are home-based and the rest locally employed abroad. A total of 10,000 will be in defence industries. These are the total figures which we see to be affected up to about 1978.

Mr. Fernyhough

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that no nation can be militarily strong whose economy is weak? Since all arms expenditure is inflationary no matter where it takes place, and since the biggest battle in which this country is engaged at present is against inflation, is it not only right and proper that the defence programme should make a contribution to overcoming the difficulties of inflation?

Mr. Mason

I think that that is right, and I think that we have done it. The Conservative Secretary of State in 1973-74 and the then Navy Minister spelt it out clearly in their debates that in a time of economic crisis the defence burden must be cut. Defence expenditure cannot escape its share of responsibility for trying to improve the nation's economic health.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am in a difficulty today. We are about to begin the Second Reading debate on an important Bill on which there has been no extension of time. I understand from the Secretary of State's statement that a debate will be arranged on these matters, so I cannot allow questioning to go on much longer.

Mr. Burden

In view of the savage cuts in naval shipbuilding, has the right hon. Gentleman any contigency plans for the recommissioning of HMS "Victory" if there is a naval crisis? Second, I welcome his statement that the Royal Naval dockyards will not be closed, but can he give an undertaking that they will be fully employed on support work for the Royal Navy?

Mr. Mason

As I said, the four dockyards will remain open. They are responsible for Fleet support, so naval work will be directed to the Royal Naval dockyards. As for the effect on shipbuilding, there is bound to be, because we have cut back the expansion plans of naval building, an adverse effect on work, especially in the development areas—the Clyde, the Tyne, the Tees and the Wear and in Northern Ireland. I hope that the development in the North Sea of oil rigs and installations and the necessity for supply ships to be built and so on will mean that that work may usefully fill the gap which we may cause.

Mr. Michael Stewart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this country has a duty to take part in the defence of the alliance, but that, at the same time, in present circumstances we have to make economies in all directions, including defence, that he has struck the balance between those two considerations with great wisdom and skill, and that Conservative Members are fully aware of that, whatever ritual noises they may think it necessary to make?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for those remarks. As I said, this has been a tortuous path to tread. It has been extremely difficult, but I believe honestly and sincerely that we have got the right balance. I hope that all hon. Members, if they are as patriotic as I think they should be, and as I am, will stand by it.

Mr. Heath

The Secretary of State will realise that he has made a statement of great importance on which we have already asked for a debate. It should be a two-day debate, because there are many aspects that we shall want to probe to see precisely what is involved in his statement. But the proposals that he has put forward today and the proposals that he puts forward after consultation will have to be judged on their merits. The Secretary of State for Defence is not entitled to say that we must accept them because of patriotism. We are all patriotic, but we certainly have our views about the individual proposals. I regret that we cannot accept what the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) said about that.

Second, the right hon. Gentleman is not entitled—in fact, he is completely unjustified—to say that the former Conservative administration would have put forward such proposals as he has done or that they had it in mind to put forward such proposals. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that in the Ministry of Defence there is a continuous analysis of the costs of every commitment undertaken by this country. The fact that that is going on does not mean at any time that a particular administration would carry out reductions or increases of a particular kind. The right hon. Gentleman must stand on his own feet with these proposals.

Last, constitutionally the right hon. Gentleman is not entitled to say, because it is not in our parliamentary traditions, that the chiefs of staff are responsible for the proposals that he has put forward. Nor is he entitled to say that they are in agreement with them. Again, the right hon. Gentleman must stand on his own feet and put forward his own justification for his proposals on their merits. Then we will consider the arguments which he puts forward.

Mr. Mason

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman had to bark at the end of that supplementary question. The Chiefs of Staff are, of course, primarily involved. What I indicated to the House was that it was my job—I thought that I had succeeded—to carry them with me. The Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chiefs of Staff would not like any cuts at all—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—of course—but, in view of the economic circumstances of the nation, they, too, were prepared to look at this sensibly and rationally and to examine whether there was any military necessity for some of these commitments abroad. Therefore, after their wisdom and advice, we came to the conclusion that we could sensibly do without all that I have mentioned today.

Second, there will be a debate very soon. I shall be in NATO on the first round of consultations next week, and we shall be able to have the debate shortly afterwards. There will be plenty of time before the White Paper is published early in March.

It is true, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that the statement was long. There has been a lot to consume. It is self-evident, from the questions I have been asked, that it has not all been grasped yet. But there will be plenty of time to air views and to receive advice and to check all the military commentators' observations on the statement before we debate it.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has made a long and difficult statement and in the heat of questioning he referred, as the Leader of the Opposition pointed out, to the Chiefs of Staff who are not in a position to confirm or deny his opinion. I am sure that if he were—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for the Chair.