HC Deb 11 May 1976 vol 911 cc206-9
4. Mr. Banks

asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will give a guarantee that there will be no further cuts in defence expenditure.

Mr. Mason

As I said in the debate on 31st March, we must judge the resources that we put into our defence in relation to the threat, and against the strength of the economy. While either of these criteria may change, I believe that for the years immediately ahead we have the balance about right.

Mr. Banks

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that our defences have now been cut to the core and that any further defence cuts would have a most serious effect on our allies and on those serving in the forces.

Mr. Mason

I do not accept that our defences have been cut to the core. Neither would I personally allow them to be cut to an extent that would endanger our security, or would mean that they were approaching bedrock—[Interruption]The reference that was made was "approaching bedrock". I do not think that they have approached bedrock. Neither do I think that my colleagues would ask me to allow them to do so.

Mr. Grocott

There may be different views in different parts of the House about the level of defence expenditure, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we should all deplore waste? Does he not further agree that the fact that about 10 per cent. of Ministry of Defence houses are empty and that many have been empty for many years is a waste that should be looked at? Does he agree that his Department should consider that matter more closely?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. No doubt he has received replies to questions posed to my Minister of State on this matter. He will know that, through the defence review and the Public Expenditure Survey cuts, we are now releasing more married accommodation to local authorities and the Property Services Agency than ever before. I expect that, over the next few years, 7,000 houses will be released.

Mr. Goodhart

Apart from the next defence cuts, when will the Secretary of State give us adequate information about the last defence cuts? Why will he not give the House information about the 40 items of Army equipment that have been either cancelled or deferred? Is he trying to fool the Russians, or this House?

Mr. Mason

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman takes that line. I should have thought that during the past two years, in defence and Service debates and the publication of material, we have given far more information on defence than have any previous administration.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Will my right hon. Friend always bear in mind that the building up of fighting power and armaments will always create danger between nations? Since the might of Russia seems to have been increasing tremendously over the past few years, what consultation has he had with his counterparts in the USSR?

Mr. Mason

I have had no consultation with my counterparts in the USSR, but if my hon. Friend peruses the last defence White Paper, he will note that we have recognised that, even in the past 12 months the threat has increased—particularly on the central front.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

The right hon. Gentleman just now misquoted the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said that "absolute bedrock" had been reached and did not use the phrase "approaching bedrock". But even if the right hon. Gentleman had got his quotation right, surely there can be no question that the Russian threat is not diminishing, but is growing year by year. Therefore, why can he not give the guarantee sought in the Question?

Mr. Mason

Because I do not think that I can prophesy to what extent the economic circumstances of this nation may change in the foreseeable future. It would be absolute folly for a nation to support massive defence expenditure while it had an economically ill condition and therefore proved an unreliable partner in NATO, anyway.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Conservatives, who seem so deeply perturbed about cuts, actually want massive increases in defence expenditure, as they have made clear over and over again? Does he further accept that many of us on the Government Benches believe that we are adequately defended and do not agree that there should be massive increases?

Mr. Mason

Yes. I am obliged to my hon. Friend. Of course the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) and the Leader of the Opposition have never yet explained how much they want to put back on to defence expenditure, where that money would come from, and what other services would suffer as a result.

Sir John Rodgers

Is not the Secretary of State concerned that the United States of America so assesses the situation that it has increased defence expenditure and that France has just announced a 20 per cent. increase in defence expenditure? Does that not concern the Government?

Mr. Mason

Of course, I watch the budgets of our NATO allies with great interest. The Americans have put forward an increased defence budget, which has not yet been accepted by Congress. I have also noted the recent speech by one of the French military leaders, noticing that the French conventional forces have been rather starved of expenditure while they have been building up their nuclear missilery. They are trying to rectify that imbalance.

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