HC Deb 10 February 1976 vol 905 cc214-9
7. Mr. Dempsey

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he hopes to bring the United Kingdom Gross National Produce contribution for defence into line with the Gross National Product contributions of other member countries of the NATO Alliance.

Mr. Mason

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) on 13th January.—[Vol. 903, c. 187.]

Mr. Dempsey

Is my right hon. Friend aware, however, that the latest figures, published in 1974, show that except for the United States and Portugal, all member countries of NATO are paying very much less of their gross national product than is the United Kingdom? Is he aware that even West Germany, with its strong economy, contributes only 3.6 per cent. of its GNP, in striking contrast to our 5.2 per cent.? Has he no proposals for bringing our contribution into line with those of the other member States?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend is correct. He also knows that because of the manifesto commitments in the two General Elections of 1974, we are obliged, progressively, over a period, to bring into line our defence expenditure—expressed as a percentage of GNP—with that of our major European allies. That is what we are doing.

Mr. Powell

How reliable are these international comparisons of GNP?

Mr. Mason

It is difficult to be able to say that they are absolute equations. The right hon. Gentleman knows how difficult it is. However, instead of dealing with defence expenditure comparisons on a per capita basis or on the basis of real levels of defence spending, within NATO we always use the statistic of defence expenditure as a percentage of GNP. That is the best comparison we can make.

Mr. Newens

My right hon. Friend stated that we are seeking to bring our percentage of GNP into line with that of our allies. Is this not arranged over the course of the next 10 years, and does it not mean that in terms of military expenditure, for 10 years we shall be forced to spend a larger percentage of our GNP than our allies? Is this not unacceptable?

Mr. Mason

It is exactly in line with the manifesto commitment. We said that we would save several hundred million pounds progressively over a period, and that is precisely what we are doing. We have to recognise that the GNPs of Britain and some of our Western European allies can change within the time-scale that I am talking about, and therefore it may be achieved more quickly or more slowly.

Mr. Marten

I should like to follow the the question put by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Does the Minister realise that his answer was not very satisfactory? Should it not be perfectly possible, within NATO, to agree a standard form of calculation for defence? After all harmonisation is the fashion, so for goodness sake let us use it.

Mr. Mason

As I have said on many occasions, within the NATO Council the recognised yardstick for defence expenditure is its percentage of GNP. It is on those figures that we base our calculation.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is it not a fact that we would save our country £1.2 billion a year for other and better things if we carried out our election manifesto commitment to reduce our level of GNP to the levels of the other Western European NATO countries?

Mr. Mason

There would be considerable savings if we managed to bring it down fairly quickly. However, my hon. Friend will understand that the problem is that, first, such action would cause great damage to the effectiveness of the Armed Forces and, secondly, it would quickly endanger the jobs of 100,000 people employed in the defence industries who could not be quickly transferred.

Mr. Maker

Is it true that the Secretary of State has given instructions that the Defence White Paper now in draft should be completely revised so that it does not confirm every point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in her recent speech on defence?

Mr. Mason

No, Sir.

8. Mr. Robin F. Cook

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is his current assessment of the military balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Mr. Mason

I refer my hon. Friend to the assessment of the military balance given in the statement on the Defence Estimates 1975 (Cmnd. 5976). The growing strength and capabilities of Warsaw Pact forces continue to be matters of concern to NATO.

Mr. Cook

Has my right hon. Friend received a copy of the annual defence statement by the American Secretary of State for Defence, published a fortnight ago? In that statement Donald Rumsfeld stated that in strategic nuclear forces there is a rough equivalent and that in conventional, military and naval force terms the NATO forces are at least equal to those of the Warsaw Pact? Does not this authoritative analysis place in perspective the quite irresponsible alarmism we have heard from the Opposition benches over the past month?

Mr. Mason

What my hon. Friend has said has a ring of truth. We must not create anxiety within the minds of the members of the alliance by repeating consistently how frightening and awesome is the growth of Soviet power. The American Secretary of State spelled out the sort of scenario to which my hon. Friend has referred. However, I must point out that although, quantitatively and qualitatively, the NATO allies are alert and can safely deter, the qualitative difference is beginning to change.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

The Secretary of State has repeated that the strength of the Warsaw Pact gives cause for concern. Is it his claim that the cuts he has made over the past year and is about to make in the next few weeks have not damaged our contribution to NATO?

Mr. Mason

Some concern has been expressed by NATO about our contribution on the flanks, but there has been no impingement of that concern about our contribution to the central front, to the Eastern Atlantic, and to the preservation of the home base.

Mr. Alan Clark

Would it not be more relevant and more ominous if we related these comparisons to previous years? Does the Secretary of State agree that the increase in the numbers of Soviet tanks, for example, from 13,000 to 19,000 since 1970, is exactly equal to the total strength of the NATO forces deployed in the West? This figure, which is already at the three-to-one norm that the Russians regard as necessary for taking the offensive, if projected over the next five years will give them a superiority of about seven to one.

Mr. Mason

That is all the more reason why the mutual and balanced force reduction talks should succeed. The hon. Gentleman must know that during the latest round the Americans have placed on the negotiating table the tactical nuclear weapons of Western Europe as a bargaining card, in the hope that we can also get a response from the Soviet Union to reduce the tank armies, of which the Soviet Union has a great predominance, in the Warsaw Pact countries.

19. Mr. Pattie

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the current British contribution to NATO.

Mr. Mason

Yes, Sir. We shall continue to maintain modern and effective forces to meet our essential commitments to the alliance.

Mr. Pattie

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, despite his protestations, all the evidence suggests that our NATO partners are not satisfied with the level of the current British contribution? If the right hon. Gentleman seeks to claim that our consultations with our NATO partners are genuine, will he tell the House what defence cuts last year were not made as a result of NATO representations?

Mr. Mason

I shall be glad to let the hon. Gentleman and the House know, in the Defence White Paper, the supplementary measures I have been considering arising out of the genuine consultations we had with our NATO allies.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what probably causes our allies most consternation is the Conservative Party's obsession with imbecile confrontation, whether it be confrontation with British industry, such as the miners, or the seeking of confrontation by making silly noises against the USSR? That sort of policy helps no one.

Mr. Mason

It causes public discussion, which is a contributory factor, but much depends on how these things are said. I am satisfied that the NATO alliance recognises the major contribution that the United Kingdom makes, especially when we, as distinct from any other member of the military structure, make a contribution to the strategic nuclear force and the tactical nuclear theatre force within Western Europe as well as contributing a professional conventional force.

Mr. Churchill

Does the right hon. Gentleman deny that following full mobilisation of reserve manpower the Armed Forces of the Crown would be fewer than those of Switzerland and Sweden, or even Finland, with a population one-twelfth that of Great Britain? On that basis, how can he be so complacent about Britain's contribution to the defence of NATO?

Mr. Mason

I question the figures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. What cannot be disputed is that Her Majesty's Forces are all professionals. We do not have conscripts. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we start conscription?

20. Mr. Blaker

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he next expects to attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.

Mr. Mason

The dates of the spring NATO ministerial meetings have not yet been fixed.

Mr. Blaker

I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the important issue of co-operation in the procurement of arms and equipment. Was it not as a result of recent initiative by some of the NATO Ministers that the Independent Programme Group was set up? Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Group made any progress at its recent meeting in Rome?

Mr. Mason

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this matter. I am pleased to say that we are making some progress. The French attended the IPG meeting in Rome. There is the distinct possibility of a further meeting next month. We are hoping that there is a possibility, flowing from the Independent Programme Group meetings, of developing NATO weaponry based on Western European defence industries.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Will my right hon. Friend tell Ministers at the next meeting of NATO that in comparison with our contribution we are not satisfied with their contributions? Will he make it clear that Britain is finding it particularly difficult to meet the exchange costs involved in maintaining the British Army of the Rhine—costs that must be met in foreign currency, with great disadvantage to our balance of payments?

Mr. Mason

I am sure that our NATO allies appreciate that difficulty. First, they recognise that we are making a major contribution in spite of our economic difficulties. Secondly, Britain's psychological presence as a member of NATO is far greater than our mere military contribution.