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Secretary Of State For Defence

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1978

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asked the Prime Minister if he will dismiss the Secretary of State for Defence.

Is the Prime Minister aware that, thanks to his Government, this country can no longer maintain its commitments to NATO in full? Is he further aware that the Royal Air Force is short of 200 pilots, that skilled men are leaving the Services at record rates and that our soldiers cannot even get enough for such items as boots and pullovers? If we are to go on with this Mad Hatter's tea party, will he agree to pay £7,000 to get rid of the dormouse?

I really begin to wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is in the pay of the Soviet Union. If I did not know that he was vice-chairman of the Conservative Party's defence committee, I should believe that he was, because rarely have I heard such a travesty of the arrangements which affect our Forces today. It is well known that the Royal Air Force is much stronger now than it was five years ago. It is well known that the Phantom aircraft which have replaced older aircraft are far more efficient, and there are more of them.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman would like to see many of the other factors which he quoted improved. But it does no good to the morale of the Armed Forces or indeed—I do not think that the Soviet Union will believe it—to other people's appreciation of our efforts to have these things said. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amer-sham (Sir I. Gilmour) will get his chance later, subject to Mr. Speaker. I always like to listen to the intellectual side of the Conservative Party, or perhaps I should say intellectual and liberal.

The hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) will be aware that there has been an improvement in recruitment, but it is unsatisfactory that too many experienced men are now leaving the Forces. I hope that can be corrected.

Did the Prime Minister hear the Secretary of State for Defence answer questions about the Harrier aircraft a few minutes ago? If so, does he agree that, if we sell these aircraft to the Chinese People's Republic on the basis that it is the enemy of the Soviet Union, that will make meaningful disarmament talks between ourselves, the United States and the Soviet Union more difficult? Does my right hon. Friend recall the importance that he placed on these talks when he made his excellent speech at the United Nations special session on disarmament?

The position about the supply of defence equipment is extremely political. Therefore, we consider it very carefully in conjunction with our allies. However, we would not allow our relations with any other country to be dictated by a third party. If we are discussing these matters, I can understand the reaction of the United States, for example, in the matter of the supply of MIG 23s to Cuba. All these sensitivities have to be taken into account. I made clear to the Chinese vice-premier that we did not wish to become just an arms supplier to China but that there were big and important commercial undertakings that we would like to explore. I am glad to say that he appreciated that particular matter. We handed to him an agreement, which I understand is to be initialled, which will provide for about $10 billion worth of trade between both our two countries by 1985. I think that is as important as the supply of Harriers.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is bad for the morale of the Armed Forces for them to hear the Prime Minister once again exhibit his complete ignorance of what goes on in defence? Is he aware that his Government have not bought any new Phantoms but that, under him, they have just changed their role? Therefore, his answer was totally inaccurate. What are the Government proposing to do about preventing or putting a stop to the present disastrous exodus of highly skilled and trained men from all three Armed Forces because they are not being paid sufficient money?

I understand that the exodus of some of the skilled men relates to the fact that they have not vet fully appreciated that there will be a substantial increase in pay in April 1979 followed by another in April 1980 to bring them fully up to the general level of civilian pay. It is important that that should be understood.

As regards my ignorance of military matters, I fully understand that I do not have the advantage that the right hon. Gentleman has had for some time of the assistance of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), but that advantage has now been removed.