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Nato Defence Ministers

Volume 932: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to meet other NATO Defence Ministers.

I confess that I gave the answer to this Question in error when replying to Question No. 13. The preface to the Questions is not dissimilar. The answer to Question No. 13 should have been: "I visit Brussels frequently in the normal course of business." The answer to the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) is: "At the Nuclear Planning Group meeting in Ottawa on 8th and 9th June."

Will the Secretary of State try to clear up another matter? Will he confirm that the Government accept the objectives set by the NATO Ministers last week of a 3 per cent. increase in defence spending in real terms without intending to take advantage of the let-out about economic circumstances being difficult, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister recently told the House that the economic indicators for Britain are pointing in the right direction?

In order not to fall out with the hon. Gentleman's Front Bench, I should accept the communique as it stands without seeking to amend it in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Has my right hon. Friend, along with the other NATO Defence Ministers, noticed the degree of standardisation in the Warsaw Pact countries and the efficiency that this creates? Is it beyond the wit of Ministers to agree on greater standardisation in NATO, so that we may get greater efficiency for less money?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in stressing the importance of standardisation, or, if that cannot be attained, of inter-operability. There are, of course, understandable pressures on most countries to find work for their own industries which does not make it easier to agree on completely standardised equipment for the whole Alliance.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that since the Ulster crisis began it has not been possible for us to maintain our agreed force level in Germany—a figure of 55,000? Was it not therefore grossly misleading for the Under-Secretary of State for the Army to suggests, in a television programme last Wednesday, that the number of troops now in place in Germany is 55,000 men, when it is not?

I did not have the opportunity of seeing the programme in question. It is well understood in NATO that we can, and do, withdraw only a small number of forces from the British Army of the Rhine to meet critical situations such as that in Northern Ireland. If one takes account of the RAF contingent in Germany, as well as the Army, the number is well over 55,000.

How was this magic figure of 3 per cent. arrived at? Was it plucked out of the air by some Defence Minister, was it reached by a process of bargaining, or does it represent a real appraisal of the Warsaw Pact?

Without breaching the confidentiality of the meetings—which is important if discussions are to be frank and worth while—it would be wrong to say which country made the proposal, but that figure was proposed in the discussion.

As the Secretary of State has given two utterly contradictory answers, will he now tell us whether he accepts or repudiates the NATO communiqué?

I have already clearly stated that I accept the need for the Alliance as a whole making an increase in its expenditure from 1979 onwards, provided—as was made clear in the communiqué—that there are no multilateral disarmament or arms control arrangements. However, the amount contribute by each country will depend upon the economic circumstances of that country and the present level of contribution.