Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1977.

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Photo of Mr Robert Brown Mr Robert Brown , Newcastle upon Tyne West 12:00 am, 22nd March 1977

I unreservedly apologise to the hon. Member for Colchester. I misread a note that a colleague took for me. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the report had been published. I can tell him that it was published last year and is referred to in paragraph 518 of the White Paper.

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) also raised the matter of the call for real increases in defence expenditure in the DPC communique. Her Majesty's Government recognise that, in the face of the continuing build-up of Warsaw Pact military strength, the North Atlantic Alliance is the best guarantee of our continued security. We intend to continue to make an effective military contribution to the collective security of the Alliance, commensurate with our economic situation. At this point, I want to quote from Hansard;We have pursued a definite policy of giving a somewhat higher measure of priority to the materials needed for exports. The grave financial crisis under which we are labouring supplies more than sufficient explanation for this decision. We depend upon exports to purchase the imports of food and raw materials without which we can neither re-arm nor live as a solvent economic society.I accept the responsibility only for doing all that was possible, having regard to the state of our defences and the economic position"—[Official Report, 5th March 1952; Vol. 497, c. 433.] Those were the words that Mr. Winston Churchill used, when he was Prime Minister, in presenting the statement on the Defence Estimates on 5th March 1952. I think that what he said bears some resemblance to our present situation.

The hon. and gallant Member for Eye (Sir H. Harrison), as Chairman of the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee, has done a first-class job which I am sure the House would wish me to acknowledge, since I understand that he will not be with us in another Parliament. I am hopeful that he will be with us for another year or two. He raised a number of detailed points in connection with the report of the Expenditure Committee. These points were raised by the Committee in its defence cuts questionnaire, and the Ministry of Defence submitted a memorandum to the Committee answering them.

However, I would like to mention the point about the reduction in Army manpower. The primary aim of the Army restructuring plan was to make savings by reducing manpower while preserving the front-line capability of the Army, and by this means savings were to be made in the total manpower allocated to the combat arms.

The resulting order of battle was fully justified in terms of Britain's primary defence commitments as established in the defence review. It was accepted that, as a consequence of this policy, continuing requirements, like the Northern Ireland emergency, would have to be met, as they were before the defence review, by the use of both units and manpower established primarily for other purposes.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the tragic loss which the whole country has suffered in the death of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Andrew Humphrey. This was indeed a tragedy, and I know that the whole House echoes those sentiments. There has also been the untimely passing of General Sharp, and I am sure that the whole House would equally wish to record our sadness at the passing of such an excellent servant.

The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) asked for assurances about fuel and ammunition for training. Since the fuel crisis, we have naturally had to watch fuel consumption in all three Services very carefully. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy will deal with the question of naval fuel separately, but I can give the assurance that, in the reductions we were obliged to make for 1977–78, the purchase of fuel has been unaffected.

As far as ammunition is concerned, we have only recently emerged from a period of great industrial disruption, stemming from the fuel crisis and the three-day week—and that was certainly not the fault of this Administration.