HC Deb 13 January 1976 vol 903 cc182-90
2. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what consideration has been given to reducing defence expenditure; and if he will make a statement.

12. Mr. Stonehouse

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the defence cuts he proposes to introduce in the interests of economy in public expenditure.

13. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a further statement about the implementation of defence cuts.

Mr. Mason

Defence expenditure, together with other public expenditure programmes, is presently under review as part of the normal annual public expenditure exercise. When the exercise has been completed, decisions will be announced in the usual way.

Mr. Evans

There has been considerable speculation in the media about cuts in public expenditure. Does my right hon. Friend realise that many of us will insist that if there are cuts in other fields of public expenditure there ought also to be cuts in defence spending? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the feeling that one of the problems facing this country is that there has been too great an investment in defence and that if some of that investment had gone into manufacturing industry and other sectors of industry, we would not have had the problems that we are now facing? Will my right hon. Friend bear this in mind in his consideration of these matters?

Mr. Mason

I shall consider my hon. Friend's point, but I must say that one of the reasons why we have had 30 years of peace in Western Europe is that Britain has been prepared to play an honourable part in the collective security of the western alliance. I recognise that because economic circumstances require cuts in public expenditure we may be called upon to curtail spending programmes in social services, housing, education and schools. It is right that defence should also come under the microscope, and so it has.

Mr. Goodhart

Is the Secretary of State seriously arguing that the external threat to this country has diminished since the defence review was carried out last year? How can he contemplate any further cuts in the defence budget when even neutral Sweden is spending £50 per head more than us on defence this year?

Mr. Mason

I do not say that the external threat has diminished, but we are members of an alliance and we are not facing that external threat alone. We are still playing an honourable part in that alliance, and if defence expenditure is to be affected in the public expenditure exercise it will be my duty to ensure that it does not impinge on our NATO commitment and the part that we play in the alliance.

Mr. Stonehouse

In considering the defence potential of much of the equipment produced here, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face to have too big a cut-back in some of our aircraft developments? Will he also give an undertaking about the continuation of the MRCA programme?

Mr. Mason

I cannot give an absolute undertaking about any programme, but there are two Questions on the Order Paper about the MRCA and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be answering them in due course. The right hon. Gentleman is right. If we cut back defence expenditure, especially in research and development, in due course civil industry will be affected because of the spin off, and this particularly applies to jobs. In many instances it might be the seed corn of future developments for both military and civilian purposes.

Mr. Goodhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that any further cuts in British defence expenditure would serve only to undermine the credibility of the deterrent that he says has worked so well in recent years? How on earth, therefore, can he contemplate any further cuts?

Mr. Mason

I suppose that most hon. Members would hate to go through a defence expenditure exercise as I have done on one or two occasions in the last two years. However, when social service programmes are coming under keen scrutiny it is only right that defence ex- penditure should, as well. I think that with this exercise it may be possible to cut back on the tail end of our combat capability without affecting the teeth.

Mr. Cronin

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that although there may be an economic case for limited defence cuts, the Government have a paramount duty to maintain the credibility of NATO as a deterrent? Will he bear in mind that the Soviet Union has in the recent past indicated beyond doubt its capacity for acting as an aggressor and that by its constant increase in the personnel and equipment of its armed forces and by its foreign policy it is increasing to an enormous extent its capability of being an aggressor?

Mr. Mason

There is a great deal of truth in that. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union has increased its capability not only within Western Europe against NATO but world-wide. I also agree that NATO would be concerned if we cut back our defence expenditure to an extent that would impinge upon the commitments we have made to it in the Defence Review. I hope that I can avoid that.

Mr. Younger

Is the Secretary of State aware that if there were any further cuts in defence his own position would become impossible? Last year he repeatedly said that the Defence White Paper was a fundamental review of all our defence requirements, and he and the Chief of the Defence Staff said they could not be cut any further with safety. Will he make it clear that he will not accept further cuts that reduce our commitment to the NATO alliance, and will he give that undertaking now?

Mr. Mason

Until the expenditure exercise is complete it will be difficult to say how far the cuts will go either on social services or on defence, and therefore I cannot give a categoric assurance at the moment. However, the House may rest assured that it is my intention to try to maintain to the full our commitment to our NATO allies, and that is the exercise upon which we are embarked.

Mr. Fernyhough

Does my right hon. Friend remember that the 1951 Labour Government embarked upon a great rearmament programme? Does he recall that when the late Sir Winston Churchill took over he said he had found that the country had an arms burden that was beyond its economic capacity to bear, and that he had decided to reduce it? Will my right hon. Friend follow that noble example?

Mr. Mason

If my right hon. Friend considers the party commitment on NATO and the manifesto pledge that we made with the defence cuts we carried out, I think that he will see that this was precisely what we were doing. Apart from the £110 million cut at 1974 prices in 1976–77, we have already embarked upon cutting back £4,700 million from programmed defence expenditure over the next nine years.

6. Mr. Peter Morrison

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received from NATO over the proposals for further cuts in defence expenditure.

10. Mr. Stanley

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received from other NATO countries on the level of United Kingdom defence expenditure.

Mr. Mason

As the annual review of public expenditure has not been completed, there have been no proposals for further cuts in defence expenditure for NATO to react to.

Mr. Morrison

Will the Secretary of State admit that there is growing consternation amongst our NATO Allies that further cuts in defence expenditure may be made? In the light of that, does he or does he not agree with the vast majority of people in this country that it is the prime responsibility of any Government to ensure the defence of the realm?

Mr. Mason

Yes, and that I hope to maintain. Certainly there is consternation, but I hope that I can dispel that in due course.

Mr. Clemitson

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the statement made yesterday by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that troops should he transferred from NATO to Northern Ireland? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the effect on our NATO commitments if that were done?

Mr. Mason

One has to recognise that the more troops we commit to Northern Ireland the more will our rôle within NATO and on the central front be adversely affected. When we deploy units in Northern Ireland-especially the Spearhead from the British Army of the Rhine—it is necessary first to train the troops before they go to Northern Ireland to be deployed on a four-month tour, and then to retrain them back into their previous rôle. That rota has an adverse effect, which we have to face. It so happens that Northern Ireland is one of our commitments. It is essential that it should be tackled, and our NATO allies recognise that.

Mr. Stanley

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the maintenance of the current level of our commitments to NATO is a pre-condition of his remaining in office?

Mr. Mason

I would not say that it would be a condition. I should be seriously concerned personally, as I am sure would most of my ministerial colleagues, if we had to impinge upon our NATO commitment. What I am trying to point out to the hon. Gentleman and to those who are impatient on the Opposition Front Bench is that if I have to cut back on defence expenditure in this public expenditure exercise my job is to make sure that I do so without impinging on our NATO commitment.

Mr. Cormack

Will the Secretary of State admit that it is his absolute duty to ensure that this country is properly defended? In view of what happened last year, and the damaging and devastating cuts then made, which have consider ably reduced our credibility, will the right hon. Gentleman now stand up for Britain and against the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. Mason

The defence review did not impair the security of this country and I am very hopeful that the exercise on which we have embarked will not impair that security.

Mrs. Millie Miller

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the voices that are demanding not just a standstill but an increase in expenditure on weapons of war are the same as those that, on every other subject that comes before the House, demand cuts in public expenditure? Will he—as he has steadfastly done today—maintain the position that whilst looking after the country's defence he will not commit the nation to an unreasonable burden?

Mr. Mason

Yes. I am obliged to my hon. Friend. Although the Opposition keep demanding large cuts in public expenditure, they have never spelt out exactly where their priorities would lie. It is up to them, and not me, to explain that.

Mr. Onslow

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House not a hope but a straight answer? Will he tell us that his backbone is at least as stiff as that of his right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who told us that he would not be prepared to remain a member of a Government who jeopardised the security of the western alliance? Will the Secretary of State tell us that he shares that view, and will he accept that the most dishonourable lot that could fall to him would be to have to report to NATO that this country had ratted on its obligations?

Mr. Mason

I do not remember the form of words used by my right hon. Friend, but, to use the hon. Gentleman's words, if an action would jeopardise the security of the western alliance I would not accept it.

8. Mr. Cryer

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will publish a table showing current British defence expenditure as a percentage of GNP and that of our NATO allies as a percentage of their GNP.

Mr. Mason

I shall be publishing this information in the next Defence White Paper.

Mr. Cryer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we need to reduce the burden of our defence expenditure to that of our allies, as promised in the Labour Party manifesto? Does he further accept that a Labour Government must give higher priority to expenditure on education and the social services? Does he see his primary rôle as implementing Labour policy in the interests of the nation or defending his Department against the Chiefs of Staff? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the Opposition's policy, which seems to be to cut education and social services expenditure but to increase spending on defence?

Mr. Mason

I have seen my rôle during the past two years as being to carry out the party pledge on which we were elected in two elections in 1974—to reduce defence expenditure as a percentage of the gross national product and to bring it into line with our major Western European allies, thereby saving several hundred million pounds a year. The defence review is doing that, and over the next nine years, on the fulfilment of that pledge alone, we shall have £4,700 million.

Mr. Farr

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, during his recent discussions with his ministerial colleagues in NATO, any reference was made to the proposed new Russian naval base on the west coast of Africa, and whether steps were taken to verify reports that this base is being constructed? If so, did he raise with his colleagues the possibility of extending the coverage of NATO into the South Atlantic?

Mr. Mason

I think I gave an indication that the military staff side of NATO had embarked upon a study of the last point raised by the hon. Gentleman. As for the missile base in Berbera, Somalia. this matter has been raised within NATO councils. To help the House, I have placed a set of photographs in the Library for everyone to see how that base is developing.

Mr. Conlan

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in total sums and per capita our principal western allies are spending more on defence that we are?

Mr. Mason

On defence expenditure per capita the United Kingdom is below America, Germany, France. Norway and the Netherlands. Therefore, my hon. Friend is quite right.

Miss Fookes

Will the Secretary of State publish a table of comparison with the Soviet Union, on the ground that it is more instructive to compare our expenditure with that of our potential enemies than with that of our friends?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Lady will see that there is a later Question on the Order Paper on that point.

14. Mr. Lane

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what will be the effect on Great Britain's NATO capability of the Government's latest projections of public expenditure up to 1980.

Mr. Mason

The annual review of public expenditure is not yet complete. have, therefore, nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16th December.—[Vol. 902, c. 1158–60.]

Mr. Lane

But does the right hon. Gentleman accept that Britain's naval resources were already strained almost to breaking point before the present cod war, and do his answers earlier this afternoon mean that there will be no further cut-backs that may weaken our important naval contribution to NATO?

Mr. Mason

I tried to indicate in my earlier replies the emphasis that I am placing, and that my Minister of Defence for the Navy is placing, on the future of the Royal Navy. We have maintained the building programme and so far we have not had any qualitative changes. I hope that we can keep it that way, because NATO depends upon us in the eastern Atlantic.

Mr. Mayhew

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that when his Minister of State wound up the defence debate 13 months ago, on 16th December, he said that the Government's then conclusions represented a judgment, "cool and sustained", of what we needed to spend to secure our safety? Since then, we have had £110 million knocked off again. Can that judgment have been so wrong that further defence cuts could possibly be right?

Mr. Mason

I think that the nation and any fair-minded person will recognise that if we embark upon major public expenditure cuts that will affect the daily lives of most of our people—cuts in programmed expenditure on education, the environment and the social services—defence expenditure, too, has to play a part. I hope that I can keep the cuts to a minimum. They will not impinge upon our NATO commitments.

17. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will ensure that further cuts in defence will not reduce Great Britain's capacity to support peacekeeping operations in Northern Ireland or the British contribution to commitments in Western Europe.

Mr. Mason

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on 16th December, there is no question of reducing the effectiveness of our contribution to NATO. As regards Northern Ireland, We shall maintain forces there for as long, and in such strength, as is necessary.

Mr. Hardy

I am grateful for that reply. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the scaremongering attitude of the Opposition during earlier exchanges today is mild compared with the even more irresponsible and alarming talk from them outside this House, since they are aware that, although defence cannot be insulated from the present grave economic pressures, the Government are maintaining Britain's capacity fully to fulfil her existing defence commitments?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. In view of his defence interest and his visits to the British Army of the Rhine, he will also recognise that our NATO allies do not mind our deploying troops in Northern Ireland even though, periodically, it may have an adverse training effect on troops in the Rhine Army.

Mr. Powell

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the operations of the Army in Northern Ireland are operations in aid of the civil power?

Mr. Mason

Of course I confirm that the operations of the Army in Northern Ireland are in aid of the civil power.

Mr. Tapsell

Is it the right hon. Gentleman's judgment that over the past three years the balance of power has shifted to the disadvantage of the free nations of Western Europe? If so, what does he propose to do about it?

Mr. Mason

I shall do my utmost to maintain Britain's contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.