HC Deb 02 December 1980 vol 995 cc113-5
5. Mr. Leighton

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals he will make to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation meeting of defence and foreign ministers on 11 and 12 December.

Mr. Pym

I shall be attending NATO's defence planning committee meeting on 9 and 10 December. Details of the issues to be discussed are not normally made public in advance of the meeting but Alliance Defence Ministers will be considering a wide range of issues affecting Western security. My right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will be attending the North Atlantic Council on 11 and 12 December.

Mr. Leighton

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge the genuine and sincere misgivings of increasing millions of our people, especially younger people, at the spiralling nuclear arms race and its cost? Is he aware that many people believe that the arms race is more likely to destroy than to protect them? In view of that, will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence with the new American Administration to take up as soon as possible the strategic arms limitation talks?

Mr. Pym

As I have said already, everybody dislikes these weapons intensely. However, the way in which they have been managed has contributed to the peace that we have known in Europe for 30 years. I assure the hon. Gentleman that neither I nor any other Minister will leave any stone unturned in our attempt to achieve some progress in the talks on disarmament and detente.

Mr. Cartwright

Does the Secretary of State believe that Britain can continue to afford to make four major contributions to NATO, when our European partners make only one? Does he accept that our defence spending must reflect the harsh economic realities? In such a situation, is it not better to sacrifice the status symbol of an independent deterrent rather than our conventional contribution to NATO?

Mr. Pym

There is no status symbol element. An independent deterrent is either needed for defence, or it is not. The view of Governments of both parties has been that it is a necessary element in our defence. Yes, of course the defence effort has to take account of the economic effort. I could make a strong case for doing rather more, rather than marginally less. We must also take into account the defence needs, the burgeoning threat that is emerging and the instability in various regions of the world. It is only prudent—and history reinforces the view—to ensure that we are strong enough to cope with the situation and to bring our influence to bear in the regions of the world so that stability can be restored as soon as possible.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith

What attitude will my right hon. Friend take when he discusses the American deployment of forces in the Persian Gulf, even though this may, as some people argue, weaken support for the NATO area? Does he agree with many hon. Members and others, that the Persian Gulf is probably where the biggest threat lies?

Mr. Pym

It certainly is a big threat to the Western world. We are much indebted to the United States for the burden that it is bearing in doing its best to keep the peace in that part of the world. I should like the United Kingdom and other allies who are able to help the United States to exercise that help as far as they can. There are implications for Europe. There is no recall of United States manpower or equipment from Europe, but there are implications in terms of reinforcement. I have no doubt that that is one of the matters that we shall discuss next week.

Mr. Duffy

In view of the reply that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), may I ask, what type of progress report the right hon. Gentleman will make to his NATO colleagues on Britain's contribution to the long-term development programme, namely items 3 to 7, which relate to conventional strength?

Mr. Pym

We shall give a good account of ourselves. It will be at least as good as that of any other European country, and we should be satisfied with that progress.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the rapid deployment of our forces be on the agenda at the NATO meeting? Did the Secretary of State observe the large hovercraft being used by Warsaw Pact countries, to great effect when exercises were taking place last September? Is it not time that we followed suit?

Mr. Pym

I do not think that we shall discuss rapid deployment. The exercise in September was a good expression of the speed at which it is possible for us to reinforce our Army of the Rhine. Recently, we introduced a new system for calling up the reserves which will more than halve the time that it takes for our reservists to be in uniform and available. In a practical way we are speeding up our redeployment, but, so far as I know, that subject will not be on the agenda next week.