HC Deb 26 November 1974 vol 882 cc230-4
14. Mr. James Johnson

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has for a statement on the defence review, the publication of a White Paper, and consultations with the allies of Her Majesty's Government.

15. Mr. Cryer

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has completed the defence review; and if he will make a statement.

17. Mr. Tebbit

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he now expects to make his promised statement on the proposed reductions in the United Kingdom's defences.

Mr. Mason

As I said earlier, the statement is planned for 3rd December. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has promised a one-day debate before Christmas; and a White Paper will be published early next year after consultations with our allies.

Mr. Johnson

Bearing in mind the long time that the House has been waiting for the statement, may I ask that when my right hon. Friend makes it he will take care not to create the impression that the United Kingdom is becoming less secure in a world which is steadily becoming more insecure, both overseas and at home? My right hon. Friend and I observe the decisions of the party conferences, but will he take care that his cuts are made judiciously in view of the need for protecting civilian employment, since there will inevitably be some unemployment?

Mr. Mason

I heed the warning of my hon. Friend. The review has taken a long time but I do not apologise for that. It has been a long and rational appraisal and I hope that when I make my statement the security of the State will not appear to have diminished, although I hope to achieve noticeable defence expenditure cuts. Of course, I must inform my hon. Friend that since 49 per cent. of the work load of the aircraft industry and 31 per cent. of the work load of the shipbuilding industry depend upon defence contracts they cannot escape unscathed.

Mr. Tebbit

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we of the Opposition hope that he will be able to live up to his words on 3rd December and show us that in spite of cuts in expenditure the defence of the realm will not have been harmed? Will he bear in mind that at present we have more men on active service than at any time since the Korean War and it seems very odd time to be cutting defence expenditure?

Mr. Mason

It may also be wise to review our commitments and see where they may be cut so that the forces on active service may be better equipped to do the job.

Mr. Cryer

Will my right hon. Friend accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I look forward to the curtailment of defence expenditure so that we can emphasise Labour Party priorities of increased expenditure on housing, social services and education? Will he also assure the House that the recent disturbances in Northern Ireland and Birmingham will in no way affect his commitment to curtail defence expenditure?

Mr. Mason

I am sorry that my hon. Friend introduced that latter note, and it is a most inopportune time to do so. On his former point, I hope he will press as strongly in making sure that the savings which I visualise are properly spent on the social services, housing, education and hospitals as he has pressed for the cuts in defence expenditure.

Mr. Fairgrieve

Might it not meet the point made by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) if the Minister used the general formula that the percentage of our gross national product spent on defence should be similar to the percentage spent by Russia?

Mr. Mason

It is not fair to compare a continent with a small nation like this. [HON. MEMBERS: "Percentage of GNP."] I know that the hon. Member referred to a percentage, but I still do not think that is a fair comparison. We are committed to look at the statistics of our defence expenditure as a percentage of GNP compared with our Western European allies, especially our major European allies. Based on the NATO statistical information that is available, we spend more. Our intention in this review has been to spend less.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it does not follow that simply to spend many millions of pounds on defence enhances the safety of the realm? If there is ridiculous spending on defence, surely this can damage our economy and contribute to a very serious situation. We need a sensible, judicious assessment, upon which I hope my right hon. Friend's review will be based.

Mr. Mason

That is exactly what we have been doing. In our examination of the commitment we have been seeing whether the money was wisely spent, and we may be able to prove in due course that not all of it was.

Mr. Peter Walker

The Opposition feel that the recent events concerning the IRA require increased expenditure in certain spheres such as the Military Police and the RAF Regiment, and not lower expenditure. As for the overall commitments of the country, after five years of steady increase in defence expenditure by the Warsaw Pact countries we feel that this is no time for Britain to begin diminishing its contribution to NATO.

Mr. Mason

As past debates have shown, I am fully aware of the threat from and of the expansion of the Soviet/ Warsaw Pact convention alliance, and I have borne that in mind. NATO is the linchpin of our security, and the front line in Germany is our front line as well. I hope that that will be maintained. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is unfortunate that at a time when we have been considering defence expenditure cuts there may be a worry about our own internal security, but I have that in mind as well.

18. Mr. Stanley

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received from our NATO allies about possible British defence cuts.

25. Mr. Lane

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what consultations he has had with other members of NATO in the course of the defence review.

Mr. Mason

Full and formal consultations with our NATO allies will commence at the time of the statement on the defence review which I mentioned earlier.

Mr. Stanley

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a bitter and shameful irony if this country, which was chiefly responsible for forging the North Atlantic Alliance, was 30 years later to be chiefly responsible for undermining its credibility?

Mr. Mason

I agree with the hon. Member. We have played a formidable part and a strong rôle throughout the whole of NATO's history and it would be a sad day if Her Majesty's Government—and a Labour Government—were responsible for unravelling that. I hope that, in consultation with our allies, I do not do that.

Mr. Frank Allaun

In the consultations will my right hon. Friend point out to our Western European NATO allies that we devote 5.75 per cent. of our GNP to arms whereas their average is only 3.9 per cent.? Will he also point out that they are in no position to dictate to us what we spend, because if we came down to their level we should save the little sum of £1,180 million a year?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend should not speak in terms of NATO allies dictating to one another. I have to meet our NATO allies, and I have done so on a number of occasions. It is an alliance based on trust and friendship. We have to have a coherent whole to be able to match the threat of the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union.

My hon. Friend is right to quote the NATO statistics, and it was on that criterion that we embarked on the defence expenditure review. It is interesting to bear in mind that even if the Conservatives had succeeded at the February 1974 General Election they, too, would have had to be looking at the massive expenditure on defence.

Mr. Lane

Particularly at a time when the Government have disappointed many of our friends in Western Europe by their equivocation over the Common Market, will the right hon. Gentleman go a little further than he has gone this afternoon and assure us that the Government's review will not lead to any weakening in Britain's contribution during the critical period now facing NATO?

Mr. Mason

I am aware of the latter point and have reiterated it time and time again. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not throw in the argument about the Common Market. The Western European nations have already welcomed our entry, because of the vigour we have put into argument, causing them to look again at their Commission and bureaucracy. The Common Market will be better for it.

Mr. Fernyhough

As each of our Western European allies is nearer to the presumed threat than we are, is it unreasonable that we should tell them "We can no longer afford to spend more than you do against this threat"?

Mr. Mason

My right hon. Friend is not being unfair. Some people in our country, being further removed from the frontier, will rightly say that. But NATO is an alliance. We want to keep is as a coherent whole and play our part in it, above all trying to help those who are nearest the frontier. It is true that NATO statistics show that as a proportion of GNP we spend more than the other countries, but they spend more in real spending, per capita spending. We are trying to bring the GNP spending back into line.