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Armed Forces: Combat Effectiveness

Volume 385: debated on Thursday 14 July 1977

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3.12 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans have been put in hand to restore the fighting capability of our Armed Forces in accordance with the amended Motion which they accepted on 12th May.

My Lords, as we have stated on many occasions, we will continue to maintain the effectiveness of the Forces we contribute to NATO. Indeed, we do not accept that the fighting capability of our Forces assigned to NATO has been significantly impaired.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity of repudiating the plan of the Labour Party Defence Committee to cut a further 28 per cent. off the defence budget? Since the Government accepted the Motion as worded, can the noble Lord tell us what action they have put in hand in the last two months? Can he tell us, also, what action has been put in hand as a result of the NATO Ministerial meeting on the 17th and 18th May, when members agreed to add 3 per cent. in real terms to their defence budgets in order to try to narrow the gap in strength which exists between the Warsaw Pact and NATO?

My Lords, I cannot strengthen what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said on the subject of the proposed cuts mentioned by the noble Lord. I thought his repudiation was emphatic. The other point raised by the noble Lord is of course an important one, but is not as immediate as the first point. The figure of 3 per cent. which we are discussing is for the period 1979–84. Our own planning figures for the defence budget, which are published, are for the year 1978–79, and these have been discussed with our colleagues in NATO.

My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that it is unfortunate that Questions are put in this form, which does nothing for the morale of our Forces and can only give comfort to any potential enemy?

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that lie has unintentionally misled the House about the 3 per cent. increase in real terms requested by the NATO Defence Planning Committee, by relating this to the period 1979–84? In fact it was a request for an annual increase of 3 per cent. in real terms. I am sure the noble Lord did not intend to mislead the House. May I ask him, secondly, whether he will say why two Cabinet Ministers, Mr. Booth and Mr. Dell, and two junior Defence Ministers who belong to the Labour Party's Defence Committee—which has made the request for this colossal and irresponsible cut of 28 per cent.— have not dissociated themselves from this demand?

My Lords, so far as the second point is concerned, of course, junior Ministers played their advisory role, but the Secretary of State has spoken and I have mentioned what he has said. That is the final statement on this matter. Of course, the noble Lord is right. We are not talking about 3 per cent. over the period 1979–84; we are talking about 3 per cent. per annum. So far as the present situation is concerned, may I point out that the only change has been in a positive direction; namely, the retention of the No. 41 Commando.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is already considerable anxiety in the Armed Forces because military salaries are so obviously falling behind other people's salaries and wages, and that this document, produced by the Labour Party's own Defence Committee, can only add considerably to this anxiety, and affect, as the noble Lord opposite has already said, the morale of the Armed Forces? Does the Minister realise that it is imperative for this Government to deny, and allay the anxiety caused by, these findings in a proper manner, and not in the half-hearted manner as was done in the other place recently?

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us on these Benches have the greatest sympathy with the proposals which have been made by this Labour Party committee? Has his attention been drawn to the letter in The Times this morning from Mr. Reginald Maudling, M.P., which reduces to its ultimate absurdity the present expenditure on armaments?

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that not all of us on this side of the House share the views of my noble friend who has just spoken? May I, as an old company sergeant-major of the First World War, draw attention to the phraseology of this Question, which talks about restoring the "fighting capability of our Armed Forces." Does not the Minister find that wording rather offensive?

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for both comments on our discussion.

My Lords, will the Minister bear in mind that one cannot quite lightly set aside the findings of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, even if they are to some extent repudiated by the Prime Minister. They generally find their way on to the agenda of the Labour Party's national conference; they are then endorsed and become Manifesto policy. There is a real danger that this will happen. Can the noble Lord not say that the Government are now planning to increase the defence of our country, in the light of the desperate risks which have been taken and which have so recently been underlined by General Haig in our newspapers?

My Lords, first, the noble Lord has got it wrong. A sub-committee has made proposals. The National Executive Committee has not as yet commented. In any case, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is not the Government of this country. It has a view, but it is not necessarily followed.

My Lords, would the Minister say that, if he is supporting the pacifists sitting behind him, he is unsuitably dressed wearing a Guards' tie?

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that credibility is of great importance?

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that, though there may be dispute about the quantity of our Forces, there can be no question about their quality? Therefore, any Question that throws doubt upon the quality of our Forces is unfair to the Forces themselves and is only an aid to our enemies.

My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that to cut defence five times, as the present Government have done, is bad for the morale of our Forces?

My Lords, I know that sacred cows are important animals, and I am very strongly in favour of this particular sacred cow. But you cannot overfeed the animal. The Conservatives have cut defence expenditure, we have cut defence expenditure. What I am saying is that the operational power of the defence Forces has not been damaged in the process. We are securing a more efficient use of our money. The noble Lord may have noted the comment, made after the Spithead Review, that the Navy of today, though smaller, is carrying a very much greater punch than at the time of the Coronation.

My Lords, whatever any sub-committee may have said, does the noble Lord, Lord Winter-bottom, recognise that we appreciate the blunt terms in which he has reiterated the view accepted by the Government on 12th May that no further cuts should be made in the fighting Forces; that, as repeated in the Question, the fighting capability of our Forces should be restored as a matter of priority and that that remains the settled view of Her Majesty's Government?