HC Deb 14 December 1976 vol 922 cc1170-3
5. Mr. Alan Lee Williams

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with co-ordination between BAOR and the Royal Air Force.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

There is close collaboration at all levels between BAOR and RAF Germany.

Mr. Williams

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be utterly disastrous if there were to be any further cut-backs in our contribution to the central front of NATO? Nevertheless, does he also agree that, as the RAF has a mainly tactical rôle, there might be an opportunity to find economies if he considered the formation of an Army Air Force?

Mr. Mulley

I am always most ready to consider any proposals from my hon. Friend, who brings a dedicated and knowledgable view to defence matters. However, BAOR is under the command of Northern Army Group, whereas RAF Germany is part of the Second Allied Tactical Air Force. What my hon. Friend suggests would involve a complete restructuring of the NATO organisation. However, I shall certainly consider any proposals that he likes to put to me.

Mr. Goodhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that however good the co-ordination between the BAOR and the Royal Air Force, it cannot be effective unless they are up to strength? What is he doing to ensure that there are no further cuts in these areas, in view of the anxious representations made to the Prime Minister only recently by the Chiefs of Staff?

Mr. Mulley

We did not have the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's presence when the Chiefs of Staff met the Prime Minister. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter was not raised in those discussions. I must make it clear that I cannot anticipate today what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will say tomorrow, but both the BAOR and the Tactical Allied Air Force are up to strength, in accordance with our treaty commitments.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Regarding the most impressive display of co-ordination recently between the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—in other words, the visit of the Chiefs of Staff to the Prime Minister last Friday—will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is the view of his chief professional advisers that tomorrow's defence cuts will bring our defences below the critical level? Will he further confirm that it is his own view that in that case he has no possible alternative but to resign his office?

Mr. Mulley

I read last weekend the right hon. Gentleman's comments, which were a shade ahead of other comments on this theme. I can understand the impatience of Conservative Members to assume the responsibility of government, but I am bound to tell the House that in my considered judgment nothing that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor might say tomorrow would be as disastrous for the nation as the Conservative Party's forming a Government.

The right hon. Gentleman must understand that I cannot disclose today the consequences of the review of public expenditure that has been undertaken. Naturally, the Chiefs of Staff are anxious to increase rather than reduce defence expenditure. They went to see the Prime Minister, as is their constitutional right. There is nothing extremely unusual about that. If the normal procedure of Defence Estimates had been proceeded with—we have not had that timetable, in order to meet the IMF commitments—the Chiefs of Staff would in the usual way have participated fully in the discussions leading to the Defence White Paper. As they did not have that opportunity, it was only right that they should discuss the matter with the Prime Minister on this occasion.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

My right hon. and hon. Friends appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman cannot reveal the cuts that we imagine or fear will be announced tomorrow, but does he agree that the action of the Chiefs of Staff on Friday was far from being not unusual, as he said, and was virtually unprecedented? Secondly, will he answer my question and confirm that it is now the view of the Chiefs of Staff that, because of the cuts tomorrow, our defence will be below the critical level?

Mr. Mulley

The Chiefs of Staff must speak for themselves, but they do not feel that our defence is below the critical level. There are a number of precedents for visits by the Chiefs of Staff, but for reasons that I do not altogether understand, more publicity was given to the visit of the Chiefs on this particular matter. I can personally recall three previous occasions within the past decade when the Chiefs of Staff have made such visits. It is not unprecedented.

Mr. Cronin

Does my right hon. Friend agree, following the precedent that has occurred several times this century, that if the Chiefs of Staff found the proposed cuts in defences to be of the catastrophic nature suggested by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) it would be incumbent upon them to resign?

Mr. Mulley

That would be a matter for the Chiefs of Staff themselves. I should not wish to involve myself in that decision.