In view of the more optimistic statements we have recently had from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer about Britain's economic future, will the Government now assure our NATO partners that they accept, without reservation, the agreed NATO target of an increase in defence spending of 3 per cent. per year in real terms?
As the hon. Member knows, the NATO aim of a 3 per cent. increase is to take effect from 1979–80, but reservations were made, on the one hand, for countries with difficult economic circumstances and, on the other hand, that where a country's expenditure was well below average it might be able to do better than 3 per cent. In the normal way, we shall be considering public expenditure for 1979–80 later this year, and this is one of the relevant considerations we shall take into account.
Did not my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week make clear that we are spending well over our share of resources compared with other Western European nations? If that is the case, to go ahead at 3 per cent. for five years--a more than 15 per cent. increase—is clearly in conflict with that statement by the Prime Minister. I hope that the Secretary of State will stick to the Prime Minister's point of view.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for letting me have his views on the matter. As he knows, the percentage of our GDP devoted to defence, almost all of it to NATO, is higher than that of most of our European allies. But this also depends on the size of the GDP. I am optimistic that, as a result of Government measures, we shall have a growth in our economy which will also have a bearing on these figures.
At the last meeting, was the question of the cruise missile discussed? If so, did the Secretary of State urge that the NATO Alliance should have this weapon, since it is just about the most effective weapon that has become available to the West in the last decade? If not, why not?
In all the meetings of the Nuclear Planning Group, the United States Secretary of Defence gives a full report on the nuclear balance within the Alliance and in developments in the Warsaw Pact countries. In that context there was some discussion about new technology. However, it would be premature to form any judgments about the rôle of the cruise missile because, as the hon. Member knows, it is still under development in the United States and there are still tests to be made—indeed, there is also controversy—on the various possibilities of its having conventional as well as nuclear uses.
Was there any discussion of the mutual and balanced force reduction talks in Vienna? Does my right hon. Friend hold out any hope of development in that area, and is there any possibility of injecting some urgency into those talks?
No, Sir. Those talks were not discussed in the Nuclear Planning Group as they would be more relevant for the full meeting of Defence Ministers on conventional matters. But I share my hon. Friend's anxiety that we should try to make progress there. I welcomed, and have done so publicly, the forthright statements made by the Federal German Chancellor and others on the need, as we hope, for progress on the nuclear side and that we should make progress on the conventional side, too, towards arms control arrangements.
In view of the humiliating rebuke that the right hon. Gentleman and the Government recently received from the Secretary-General of NATO, why did not the right hon. Gentleman succeed in persuading the Chancellor of the Exchequer to devote even one single penny of his mini-Budget to defence or the Armed Forces? Is this not just another example of the fact that the Government put defence right at the bottom of their priorities?
I am much impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I would be more so if I did not recall that, in the one year of 1973, he was party to three cuts greater than we have made. The NATO authorities have examined the basis of the cuts that we propose to make for next year and have agreed with us that they do the minimum damage to our contribution to the Alliance. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made clear several times—indeed, I gathered that it was the policy of the Conservative Party, although in a more extreme form—we are not yet in a position to relax the restraints on public expenditure.
I know that the Secretary of State's case is very weak, but surely he does not have to try to buttress it by saying something that is quite untrue. He must know perfectly well that the Government's cuts are infinitely greater than those imposed by the Conservative Government. Will he conic clean and tell the truth?
We have gone into these factual matters and I showed in previous debates that, in real terms, in 1973 the Conservative Government exceeded in actual cuts those that we have made in the current year.