HC Deb 25 January 1977 vol 924 cc1171-2
Q3. Mr. Michael Marshall

asked the Prime Minister when he next intends meeting the Defence Chiefs of Staff.

The Prime Minister

If the House will permit me, I should like to express my deep regret at the news of the death yesterday of the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Andrew Humphrey. The answer to the hon. Member's Question is that I see the Chiefs of Staff from time to time in the course of normal Government business.

Mr. Marshall

The whole House will wish to be associated with the Prime Minister's remarks, in view of the tragic death of the Chief of the Defence Staff yesterday.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to pay tribute not only to that distinguished officer but to all other holders of the office and to reaffirm that his Government—indeed, any Government —regard their prime duty as the defence of the realm?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. That is certainly my very strong view, but the matter must also be seen in conjunction with our relations with our NATO Allies. None of us is an island unto himself in these days. I should like to repeat the view expressed by Chancellor Schmidt yesterday that although the build-up of Soviet arms is a matter for concern it may be that in the future the Soviet Union will attain parity in strategic nuclear weapons and tactical nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union exceeds us in conventional weapons, but it would be wrong to panic, because at present the balance is still maintained, and I believe that the security of the West is still in good shape.

Mr. Ron Thomas

When my right hon. Friend meets the Chiefs of Staff will he explain to them that over the past three years our defence commitments overseas, especially in Western Germany, were equal to the loan that we have just had to obtain from the International Monetary Fund, with all its conditions, and that over the next 12 months the balance of payments cost of our military commitments overseas could rise to £1,000 million? In the light of his efforts to try to secure an offset agreement, which have failed, will my right hon. Friend also tell the Chiefs of Staff that we can no longer afford the economic burden of military commitments overseas?

The Prime Minister

I believe that that would unnecessarily weaken the defence of the United Kingdom. The presence of British troops in Central Europe as they are today is not only a source of stability to Central Europe but a means of an extended protection of our own islands. Therefore, I cannot accept what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my other right hon. and hon. Friends, I should like to express the same regret as the Prime Minister has expressed about the death of the Chief of the Defence Staff, who was a very brave, very distinguished and very able officer.

The Prime Minister said that there was no need to panic about the Soviet defence forces. We are not talking about panic but Vice-President Mondale said yesterday that America would build up her NATO forces provided her European Allies were prepared to do the same. Will the Prime Minister now assure the House that lie is prepared to match America's resolve?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly want to discuss the matter with Vice-President Mondale when he arrives, because I wonder how it would be reconciled with the proposals to reach a new strategic arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, which I assume would have the effect of reducing expenditure—I trust that it would—and with the need, as I see it, to try to put some fresh life into the negotiations on mutual balanced force reductions that have hung fire for two years in Vienna. This seems to me the better course for us to follow, because it is the view of a number of us in the NATO Alliance—not merely myself; I know that Chancellor Schmidt shares this view—that the strain of the Soviet Union's present build-up of arms, in terms of its economic strength, must be considerable, and both of us should seek to relieve ourselves of these strains.

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