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North Atlantic Council (Meeting)

Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence what changes in British defence plans and expenditure will be made as a result of the discussions held at the last ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council.

As agreed at the Council meeting, we will be participating in the preparation of a long-term NATO programme to meet the changing defence needs of the 1980s and to review the manner in which the Alliance implements its defence programmes to ensure more effective follow-through.

Is the Secretary of State aware how pleased the Americans and our other NATO allies were at the informal commitment made by the Prime Minister and other Ministers at the Summit that next year's £230 million defence cuts would be drastically modified? Is he aware that if we go back on this commitment, disillusion among our allies will be complete?

I am not aware of the sources on which the hon. Member relies for his observations, but if he studies the communiqué and the text that has been released of President Carter's speech he will see there is no question of resource allocation in that speech, and there is no commitment to revise the figures. This matter will be looked at in the ordinary way in which the Government assess future defence expenditure and other public expenditure programmes. There is no commitment to increase defence expenditure as the hon. Member has suggested.

Can the Secretary of State say whether, in this consideration of the changing defence needs for the 1980s, any assessment has been made of the Soviet breakthrough in laser weapons? Will he give his own assessment of the implications of this for British defence needs in the 1980s?

The assessment will be made by a series of studies, which I hope will be placed in the hands of the NATO military authorities, and will cover all aspects. I think that the Press reports about Soviet laser technology are exaggerated, and my hon. Friend will know that President Carter has made a similar observation.

Returning the original Question, surely the excuse for cuts in defence expenditure has been the Government's attachment to the proportion of gross national product. If the GNP goes up, as we are told it will by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will defence expenditure rise in proportion?

It would be unwise to make arrangements in one part of that equation without being sure that the other part has been satisfactorily achieved. There is wide recognition among all our NATO ministerial colleagues of the very substantial contribution that we make. They realise that in our special economic circumstances we are making a significant contribution, although naturally they would want us to do more.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any acceptance of proposals to increase expenditure within NATO would make it impossible to realise the commitment made by the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he was Secretary of State for Defence to reduce the percentage of GNP that was devoted to defence? Would it not be disgraceful, at a time when so many other sectors of public expenditure are being starved of funds, to go ahead with advancing defence expenditure? Would it not also conflict with the agreement that we have made with the IMF?

There is some difficulty in understanding the time scale. The discussions in the NATO Defence Planning Committee last week were concerned with the period from 1979 onwards. I would not think that this afternoon was the appropriate time to take decisions for a period as far ahead as that.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what is the point of either him or the Prime Minister attending the NATO meetings, making agreements and signing communiques if, immediately afterwards, they refute what has been signed?

The right hon. Member has enough experience to realise that a communique is not a form of binding commitment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] Yes it is disgraceful, and I shall quote an example that occurred when the right hon. Member was a distinguished member of the previous Conservative Government. He went in a contrary direction to a communique that he had signed a little while before. If the House and the right hon. Member study the communiques issued after the London or Brussels meetings they will find nothing whatsoever in them that is contradictory to what I have told the House this afternoon.