HC Deb 17 December 1975 vol 902 cc1373-6
6. Mr. Eldon Griffiths

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is his policy towards the recent declaration of the Atlantic Treaty Association that the threat to Western security is increasing while perception of that threat is diminishing; and if he will refrain from making such cuts in Great Britain's contribution to the military strength of the Western Alliance in Europe and elsewhere as would leave his ability to influence NATO strategy and protect British interests in the world much reduced.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. James Callaghan)

My NATO ministerial colleagues and I reaffirmed in Brussels last week our determination to maintain and improve the efficiency of our forces in the face of the steadily expanding power of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact. The Government are firmly committed to maintaining an effective British contribution to NATO, which remains the first and overriding charge on our resources available for defence.

Mr. Griffiths

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is concern and even anxiety in the United States and Western Europe about several aspects of British foreign policy, for example, import controls, which appear to contradict the spirit of Rambouillet; borrowing from the International Monetary Fund more than our share at the expense of less developed countries; and the prospect of cuts in defence against the background just described by the right hon. Gentleman? As the Foreign Secretary has a special responsibility within the Cabinet for the position of the United Kingdom in the world, will he give his personal undertaking to resist any cuts in British defence that would put at risk our influence within NATO and to do his utmost to ensure that our relations with the United States and Western Europe remain sound and solid in these difficult days?

Mr. Callaghan

During the past few days I have had the opportunity of discussions with the United States Secretary of State, both in Paris, yesterday, and in Brussels, last Friday. I do not think that he would wholly recognise the description that the hon. Gentleman employed. As to the future of our defence—which is what the Question relates to—I do not give personal assurances on that matter. Of course not. These are collective decisions. They will be collectively taken, collectively advocated and collectively defended.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our contribution to NATO as a percentage of our gross national product is massively higher than those of other contributors? Does he further agree that we could massively cut our defence contribution to bring it into line with that of other members of NATO?

Mr. Callaghan

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question is that our expenditure, as a proportion of gross domestic product, is still higher than that of some of our NATO allies. [Interruption.] I am answering my hon. Friend's supplementary question, not sedentary interruptions. There is, therefore, no reason why we should be ashamed of our contribution to NATO. We are paying more, as a proportion of GDP. But that is not the only measure. Measured in terms of total expenditure, we are not ahead of other nations. Some nations in NATO are ahead of us. I am sorry that I part company with my hon. Friend in replying to the second part of his supplementary question. Massive cuts would not support the present processes of multilateral disarmament upon which we are embarking, nor would they represent the proper contribution that this country should make, and they could increase the dangers in Central Europe. I ask my hon. Friends to reflect on that last point.

Mr. Maudling

If I heard the Foreign Secretary aright, he said that he and his colleagues committed themselves to improving the efficiency of their defence forces. May we take it that any decisions made by the Government on defence expenditure are based on the principle that they will improve the efficiency of our defence forces?

Mr. Callaghan

The first part of my answer referred to the collective decision of all the NATO countries. There is a common determination to maintain and improve the NATO forces, and we shall take our part in that.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that NATO has more men under arms and more tactical weapons than have the Warsaw Pact countries? Therefore, should not we implement Labour Party policy to reduce the proportion of our GNP spent on defence to the proportion spent by our allies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that in our present economic position we can no longer afford to prop up the myth that the Eastern bloc is ready to catch a train to come over to conquer us?

Mr. Callaghan

I have not the figures with me, and that supplementary question should probably be asked of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I doubt whether my hon. Friend's comparison is accurate, but I should like to check it. The proposals that were put to the Warsaw Pact countries yesterday are designed to achieve a common ceiling in manpower, and a common ceiling in manpower is reckoned to be to the advantage of Western Europe, because Eastern Europe has more men under arms. In exchange, certain other changes would be made.

On the question of reductions in relation to GNP, if my hon. Friend examines the proposals put forward by the Government over a period of years he will find that the initial reductions that were made were calculated to achieve that end. I would much prefer us to increase our GNP at a faster rate—which would make the proportions more equitable—rather than cut our defences substantially emphasise again that this cannot be measured purely and simply in terms of cash; there are political considerations that greatly affect the welfare of Central Europe, and we should not overlook them.