HC Deb 12 February 1980 vol 978 cc1245-7
Mr. John Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he next expects to meet his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation colleagues.

Mr. Pym

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply which I gave earlier today.

Mr. Evans

When the Secretary of State meets his NATO colleagues will he make it clear that many people in this country do not believe that the British economy will bear a 3 per cent.per annum increase in defence expenditure? Will he also make it clear that, despite the howls of outrage from his Right wing, he has no plans further to increase defence expenditure?

Mr. Pym

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the attention of the House to the state of the economy. Of course, we have also to draw the attention of the House to the threat that we face. We believe, notwithstanding economic difficulties, that a further effort on defence is required. The whole Alliance takes that view and I personally would prefer that the increase should be greater than it will be. Despite economic difficulties, further effort on defence is un- doubtedly required and that is why we attach such importance to it.

Mr. Banks

When my right hon. Friend meets his colleagues in NATO, will he discuss the report that the Soviet Union used chemical weapons producing nerve gas in its occupation of Afghanistan? Will he look in to the ways in which NATO forces can defend themselves against such weapons?

Mr. Pym

I am unable to confirm or deny whether chemical weapons were used in Afghanistan. However, the protection of our forces against horrific chemical warfare is thought to be better—certainly as good, although SACEUR believes better—than any other army in Europe. That should be of reassurance to the House. What is alarming is the existence of the chemical capability by the Warsaw Pact countries. It is a horrific weapon and causes great anxiety. It is not sufficiently criticised and we are considering what should be our attitude towards it.

Mr. Cook

When the Secretary of State meets his colleagues in NATO, will he remind them that assurances were given in this House and elsewhere that the decision to deploy cruise missiles would be accompanied by a new initiative in arms control? Is he aware that the paltry five-point statement that was issued in December neither contained anything new nor did it reveal an initiative? Will he invite his colleagues to pursue arms control with the same zest and animation with which they are pursuing the deployment of cruise missiles?

Mr. Pym

Clearly, events in the world since that decision was taken have produced a cold climate for detente and arms control. However, that has in no way altered the importance that the Government attach to arms control. Offers remain on the table. So far, what has been put there has been rejected effectively by the Warsaw Pact countries. It is unfortunate and, although it is an important part of our policy, unless and until the other side is prepared to follow a policy of balanced and verifiable reduction it behoves us to be extremely cautious.

Mr. William Rodgers

The House will have noted that the right hon. Gentleman takes a cautious view about the prospects for increased defence spending and, surely, that is right. Nevertheless, can the right hon. Gentleman say what new options increased defence spending would have created for Afghanistan or for the stabilising of the regime in Iran, the failure of which has created special problems for us in the Middle East? Surely, the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that defence spending itself is a soluton to what are, essentially, political problems.

Mr. Pym

I do not believe that I have pretended at any stage that a further spending on defence would have been specifically directed to what happened in Afghanistan, the events in Iran or the Middle East. The question is the total capability that NATO requires to deter a potential aggressor in the light of the growing strength of that potential aggressor. I could not be specific vis-a-vis the events in Afghanistan, and it would not be right for me to be so.