Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1936, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Department of His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Salary of a Minister without Portfolio.
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. Eden)
I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee if I say a word of explanation at the outset. As the Committee will see, this is only a token Vote, for, in fact, the increase in passport receipts exceeds to a considerable extent the increase in our expenditure. The position, I understand, is that these increased passport receipts cannot be used by the Foreign Office to cover their increased expenditure without Parliamentary approval, and that is the reason for this Estimate.
The items of the Estimate consist in the main of four, which fall under two heads. The first is salaries due to increased provision of staff required by the political situation abroad. This takes the form of increased diplomatic and clerical staff in the Foreign Office and an increase in overtime paid to the existing very hard-worked clerical staff. A further item is the increased staff for the Passport Office, but this, of course, is more than covered by the increased receipts of the Passport Office. A third item is additional expenses in connection with 290 the Naval Conference. As the Conference is being held in London His Majesty's Government are responsible, in accordance with the precedent set in 1930, for the cost of the secretariat, which consists of a staff of 20 persons. If the Conference had been held abroad the Government, would have had to meet travelling and subsistence charges which would have been of a similar or larger amount. It is impossible to forecast the duration of the Conference, and the provision for which we have asked here is only to the end of the financial year, 31st March.
A further item of increased expenditure is on telephones which have been required both by the situation abroad and by the Naval Conference. This item consists mainly of calls to Geneva and to embassies and legations abroad. An expenditure of £200 has been required for telephones for the Naval Conference. There are, however, I am happy to say, certain savings which I am able to report. There is, first, the saving on the salary of the Minister without Portfolio, owing to my personal eclipse in that capacity. There is also the considerable increase in the sums received in the fees from passports, and these two items together more than cover the increased expenditure which I have mentioned. Perhaps I should explain that the increased receipts from passports are due to our having under-estimated the increased demand for passports to travel abroad in the latter half of last year. The figures for August and September greatly exceeded our expectations. In the circumstances I have only to ask for a token Vote of £10 to enable the sums I have mentioned to be used to cover the expenditure which has been incurred.
Perhaps before I sit down I might, for the convenience of the Committee, say a few words about the position of the Naval Conference, which arises on one of these Votes. As the Committee know, negotiations between the delegations are still in progress; actually we are engaged in active negotiation now. I am sure, therefore, that the Committee will understand when I ask them in these circumstances not to press me to give details of the position which the Conference has reached. The position in the Conference is that my colleagues have agreed not to divulge officially the details of such decisions as we have arrived at, pending a 291 final agreement on the other points which are still under discussion. In such circumstances I know the Committee will understand when I ask that I should not be pressed to divulge what others have not divulged. Moreover, as hon. Members opposite and particularly the former First Lord will recall, it is our experience that it is unwise during a Conference to make premature publications which sometimes have the effect of destroying negotiations actually in progress. That has certainly been my experience more than once and no doubt the experience of others in this House. Therefore, I ask again that the Committee will not press me to make a statement on the condition of the negotiations at this moment. I will gladly give an assurance that as soon as a favourable moment arrives I shall take the Committee into fullest confidence about the outcome of the Conference; and the Committee may be equally sure that I shall do my best to hasten and further the moment when my lips will be unsealed.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Mr. AMMON
I propose to emulate the right hon. Gentleman in being brief, but I wish to put one or two points that arise on this Vote. While everyone en this side of the Committee understands the position of delicacy that naturally arises when a Conference is in being, at the same time it is a little difficult for the House of Commons to be asked to abrogate entirely the right to be told what is the Government's policy and what the Government are doing. I would remind the Foreign Secretary that as recently as the 4th of this month my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) asked the Prime Minister whether it was the intention of the Government to publish a White Paper in order that the House might be kept somewhat informed as to the policy being pursued by the Government at this Conference. A Noble Lord in another place also pressed the same point. Each received an answer in the negative. What are the rights of the Commons in matters like this? It is all very well for the Foreign Secretary to come here and plead that negotiations are likely to be embarrassed if questions are put and he is pressed to divulge what is taking place behind closed doors, but it is surely asking too much of a democratic assembly to 292 say that it should know nothing about what is happening until the whole thing is a fait accompli, when we have no possibility of judging or discussing or giving advice as to what we desire in these matters. I would press at any rate that even if we are not to be informed as to the details, this House has a right to press for some information as to what are the Government's intentions and policy in this particular matter.
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that at the 1930 Conference, which was presided over by the present Lord President of the Council, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough, then First Lord of the Admiralty, published within a few days after the assembly a White Paper in order that the House might be informed, as far as was thought necessary, regarding the procedure. What is the position now? From day to day we see reports of some sort or another that leak out and appear in the Press, sometimes in other countries and not in this country, and we do not know whether they have arty basis of authority behind them. These reports disturb the public mind and must keep Members of the House of Commons unsettled if they are concerned about such things, and yet when we ask questions here we are met with a point blank refusal of information. I suggest that it is rather too much to expect a House of Commons to sit down under that.
It seems to me not at all in accordance with the fitness of things that in so important a matter as the Naval Conference now in progress we are left to raise on a mere side issue such as is contained in this Supplementary Vote, the points that we wish to raise. This is the only opportunity that the House of Commons has yet had of raising this particular question. Some of us are a little disturbed in our minds as to exactly what policy the Government are putting before the Conference. I have here quotations from statements by the naval representatives of the other Governments taking part in the Conference, in which they express themselves as in favour of limitation of armaments both quantitative and qualitative, but when I look at the proposals, as presented by our own First Lord, so far as one can see they give us some cause for concern, for they seem to be suggestions emanating from this side for an increase in armaments, in face of 293 the expressed opinion, published in the Press, of the desire of others to arrive at some sort of agreement with a view to limitation of armaments.
As far as we can see the capital ships proposed in 1933 were to be of a maximum size of 25,000 tons with 12-inch guns. As far as information reaches us the British proposal now is for capital ships of 35,000 tons with 14-inch maximum guns. I need only quote that as an indication of the right of this House to feel a little disturbed about what seems to be a direct lead by the Government for an increase in armaments, in spite of the explanations and the exhortations we have had from the Government Front Bench to trust the League, to put our faith in it and to press forward for general disarmament. Is it too much to ask the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House what proposals the British Government are making with regard to capital ships, both as to size or tonnage' of ships and weight of armament? Is it too much to ask whether or not there has been any departure from the agreement with regard to cruisers?
§ Sir PATRICK HANNON
On a ponit of Order. Are we discussing the Navy Vote or discussing the expenditure incurred in connection with the sittings of the Naval Conference? Surely it is hardly competent for the hon. Gentleman to raise these questions on a Vote of £4,500 for the expenses of the Naval Conference. The hon. Gentleman is raising the whole question of naval policy.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I was listening to the hon. Gentleman with a good deal of attention. I regard this Vote as one for what is in the nature of a new service, though a very limited service. So far I have not found it necessary to stop the hon. Gentleman, but no doubt he will bear in mind what I have to say. He cannot discuss the merits or otherwise of particular types of ships and must limit his remarks strictly to the Naval Conference.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
As you have said, Sir Dennis, this is a new service, and in any case this is the only opportunity we have to deal with the cost of a very important Naval Conference. We submit that we have a perfect right to question the Foreign Secretary as to why we have not been supplied with information regarding the proposals made to 294 that conference and what has been done with them. What right have Members of the House of Commons, when asked to vote money, if they cannot ask questions with regard to such matters?
§ Mr. AMMON
What we seek, on the very first opportunity that we have had, is to try to ascertain exactly what policy is being followed at the conference and for what purpose we are voting this money. We get no information other than unauthorised rumours published in the Press and, when questions are asked, we are denied authoritative information. That is bound to arouse a good deal of disquiet both among the public and Members of the House. Can we have any information as to whether the Government are making any definite proposals with regard to capital ships and whether there is to be any increase in the total tonnage with regard to cruisers? There has been an outcry as to the insufficiency of the number of cruisers. That is very much determined by the tonnage of the particular cruisers that are built. Under the London agreement we were allowed a cruiser strength of roughly 275,000 tons. That gave us about 35 cruisers. At present the Government are building cruisers of 8,500 tons, varied here and there by vessels of 5,300 tons. Unless some explanation is given, an entirely false impression is created as to our cruiser strength, because agreement was come to at the London Conference as to total tonnage, and it was left to particular countries to decide how they would use that tonnage. It is on some of these points that we require information.
There is another thing upon which we ought to be informed, particularly having regard to the discussions that have taken place in the last day or two. Is regard being had at the conference to the fresh development of thought and opinion with regard to armaments, and with regard to international co-operation in the matter? In short, have we gone into the conference with the same mentality as in the days of Nelson, having regard only to our isolated position, with every other nation viewed as a potential enemy? Are we building up our armaments on those lines or is the discussion taking place with a view to 295 possible co-operation between the nations? Are we doing anything to build towards a real co-operative and collective force with a view to collective action in regard to disputes that might emerge between nations? If that is the position, it might do a great deal to allay disquiet in the minds of people here and in other countries. An announcement to that effect would not embarrass the conference but it would rather call forth an expression of opinion which would strengthen their hands if the right hon. Gentleman could inform us that discussions are taking place along those lines so as to diminish the weight of armaments that it is felt necessary to build in the years to come, and that we can have a progressive reduction in armaments because there is increasing confidence between nations and nations.
There is a tremendous weight of opinion in the views expressed by a number of people who are taking part in the Conference and some who remain outside. Also, if one is to take any cognisance of the Prime Minister's own speech just before the Conference, that would seem to be the goal to which we should all be steering. One is labouring under a handicap because one does not want to do anything to embarrass the discussions, but one must firmly maintain the right of Parliament to be kept informed of what is happening, that we should not be treated as though we did not count and as though the British Navy was the private possession of the British Government and they alone had any right to any knowledge as to what was taking place. It is a matter that concerns us, and concerns the Opposition as much as those on the Government Benches.[Interruption.]When the right hon. Gentleman says "Hear, hear," that does not help us very much. If he is going to say that owing to the delicate situation it is not expedient that the House should be informed, one has the right to ask why it is not expedient. After all, this is the seat of government and we have a right not to be treated as people who are not to be trusted or who have no opinions on these matters. We have a right to be kept informed, as has been done on other occasions, as to what is taking place, and, while not pressing for details, we have a right, which I press on the right hon. Gentleman, to be 296 informed as to what is the considered policy now being discussed on behalf of the Government at the Conference.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Mr. KINGSLEY GRIFFITH
I am not going to complain of the right hon. Gentleman saying, "Hear, hear," because I gather that he is under some kind of trappist vow which prevents any informative words passing his lips, but I should like to know what is the exact extent of this self-denying ordinance. As far as I could gather, it was the decisions so far arrived at. I can understand that, because progress made in consultation with other Powers might well be considered as partly their property as well as ours, and therefore it could not be revealed except by general consent. But I think the question as to proposals that have been made on our side is in a very different category. That is our property. Those who are putting forward proposals are doing so on behalf of the British nation, and it is a matter of very great importance that we should know what is happening. If the undertaking has gone so far that we are not even allowed to know what attitude our own Government has taken, we cannot ask the right hon. Gentleman to break his word, but I would urge upon him the extreme undesirability of entering into such undertakings, if that is what in fact has been done.
We have paid for our seats in the theatre and are not allowed to look at what is happening on the stage. That is an extremely undesirable state of affairs. If the Government on all these matters had announced a policy clearly to the nation, at the General Election let us say, and had given the House and the country reason to suppose that they had never deviated by a hair's breadth from the path which it set itself, curiosity would be allayed, but we have seen that changes of policy of a most startling kind can happen over night, and it is quite natural that we should desire. most particularly in a matter which is going to affect the taxpayer and affect the future of the nation most profoundly, to have all available information at the earliest possible moment. The questions asked by the hon. Gentleman who opened the discussion were most pertinent questions, and it is a, most undesirable state of affairs that the right hon. Gentleman, while most 297 desirous to be helpful, is utterly unable to say anything except a few reassuring sounds.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Mr. MANDER
There is one part of this Estimate which I very heartily welcome, and that is the increased cost of the staff and offices at Geneva. As a. rule, Government representatives congratulate themselves on having cut down expenditure on the League of Nations—a very false view I should have thought.
§ Mr. MANDER
I am dealing with A (a)"Increased provision necessitated by the political situation abroad."
§ The CHAIRMAN
I do not think that that has anything to do with Geneva. I think the hon. Member will see that his remarks apply really to the League of Nations, mentioned in the next Vote.
§ Mr. MANDER
Then I base my case on telephone calls. I am glad to know that an increased Estimate for such a purpose has been brought forward. It is in very striking contrast with the hundreds of millions asked for on the other side of national affairs, but it is something to see that use is being made, even to a limited extent, of the international organisation at Geneva. I should like to stress one point made by the hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench who asked, with regard to the Naval Conference, whether attention was being given to the collective aspect of naval armaments. The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that there were various kinds of national defence and he had come down on the side of collective security. Obviously, if that is so, it is necessary that at a Naval Conference of this kind very careful attention should be given to the possibility of navies working together, of having perhaps joint manoeuvres or co-operating for the purpose of carrying out collective security. Has that side of the work been overlooked?
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ Sir P. HANNON
I rise to ask whether the Naval Conference is taking into consideration the dominant fact that the British Navy down the ages has been the greatest influence for peace in the world? When the hon. Member talks of co-ordinations of naval strength in relation to collective security, I should like to point out that the British Navy has borne the whole burden of preserving peace among the nations for all these years. The only guarantee of security that we can depend upon is our power at sea. I hope that nothing will take place in the proceedings of the Naval Conference such as the hon. Member anticipates, or we may soon have no Navy at all.
§ Sir P. HANNON
I did not refer to the hon. Gentleman, but to a much more distinguished statesman sitting in front of him. I hope that in the proceedings of the Naval Conference the significance of the British Navy will be kept in mind in the preservation of peace as the only instrument to give effect to decisions arrived at by the League of Nations. I hope that it will have the full attention of the Government and that nothing will be done to weaken its power to discharge the great obligations resting upon it in view of the present international situation.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Miss WILKINSON
I had not dared to make a speech, but this atmosphere of general approval of the Foreign Secretary and collaboration with the Government makes it possible to ask the Foreign Secretary a few questions about the £2,850 for the cost of additional staff and extra pay necessitated by the political situation abroad. Practically the whole of the discussions we have here seem to assume that the situation abroad will necessitate vastly increased armaments, increases in the Navy, Army and the Air Service, and that it is something which simply cannot be helped because we are, as always in this country, on the side of the angels. The British Navy has never fired a shot except for loving kindness of everybody, and we have collected our Empire partly in a fit of absentmindedness, and partly by going out and getting the countries of the world to 299 bestow upon themselves the blessings of British rule. It is very comforting except for the people who may be suffering under us.
We have this enormous Empire, and a Navy, Army and Air Force, and all the rest of it and the net result, apparently, is that in 1936 we are on the verge of war. Almost every discussion in this House seems to bring out that fact. I want to ask whether, in connection with this cost of additional staff and extra pay necessitated by the political situation abroad, the Foreign Secretary has engaged extra staff in order to consider whether there is any way out of the political situation into which we are drifting. The amazing complacency of hon. Gentlemen opposite was beautifully pictured by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon), who looks a monument of complacency. The British Empire has done very well for him. The young men of the British Empire went out and fought, yet there is the hon. Member sitting completely complacent considering the next war, when, at any rate, he will not have to fight. There are a large number of young men watching events and wondering whether anything is to be considered which will in any way suggest that we are not going to drift into war.
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Lady has gone a little wide of the subject under discussion. She had better come back to the Vote which is before the Committee.
§ Miss WILKINSON
That is why I feel that it is so important to learn at the present moment from the Foreign Secretary whether, in regard to the £2,850 which we are discussing, there are people engaged in advising him not what is to be the decision of the Naval Conference, and whether we are to be killed by 16-inch or 18-inch guns or from what kind of poison gas we are to suffer in the next war, but whether, included in the additional Foreign Office staff, there are those who are considering the problem as to how we can avoid the next war? That is what the country wants to know.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I must definitely rule that matter out of order as not being appropriate to this Vote.
§ Miss WILKINSON
I bow to your Ruling with the utmost respect, but I find difficulty in this House because the question of how to avoid the next war seems to be one of the subjects which are ruled out of order as irrelevant.
§ The CHAIRMAN
This is definitely irrelevant to the matter which the Committee are now discussing, and I must ask the hon. Lady to refrain from discussing it further.
§ Miss WILKINSON
Certainly, I am most concerned to obey your Ruling in every possible way. I feel that I have really raised the point that I wanted to raise with the Foreign Secretary, and I give him warning that I propose to raise it on every single Vote or issue we have before us.
§ The CHAIRMAN
This is not the right time for the hon. Member to give notice of her intention to raise something which is quite irrelevant.
§ Miss WILKINSON
But I ask the right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary whether there is in the Foreign Office—that is surely his job—some Department dealing with this matter?
§ The CHAIRMAN
This is not the Vote of the salary of the Foreign Secretary and it is not the occasion on which the hon. Member can ask him about the departments in the Foreign Office. The hon. Lady must heed my previous warning and confine herself to matters which are before the Committee, or, I am afraid, I shall have to ask her to resume her seat.
§ Miss WILKINSON
May I ask for your guidance, Sir Dennis, on this matter, because I am most anxious to keep, in the most precise degree, within any Rules of Order which you can conceivably lay down. We are, after all, making provision for the cost of additional staff necessitated by the political situation abroad, and I put it to you, with the greatest respect, that surely we have a right to ask what this additional staff are to do? May I ask the Foreign Secretary whether, as right through these particular Votes, and particularly in this one, we are making preparations for staffs, there is some part of his Department considering these problems? Having made that point. I leave it with you, Sir Dennis, and the Foreign Secretary.
§ Mr. BAXTER
From the opposite side of the Committee we hear constant references to the necessity for combining with the other nations of the League in regard to naval action and in collective defence. Surely, hon. Members opposite must realise that there are only six great naval powers. They are America, Japan, Germany, Italy, France and Britain, and of those naval powers only France and Britain may be said to be 100 per cent. in the League. The French themselves would take a long time before the material part of their Fleet could be mobilised.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I would warn the hon. Member that he is getting out of order. I gather that he intends his remarks to come under the Vote for the purposes of the Naval Conference.
§ Mr. BAXTER
I beg your pardon, Sir Dennis. I apologise as a new Member for having transgressed through perhaps not being entirely familiar with the procedure of the House. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will bear in mind our peculiar requirements and not be deluded by such phrases as collective security.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ Mr. EDE
I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman a few questions about these telephone calls. Can he tell the Committee whether, when Ministers go abroad, their telephone calls back to this country on official business are charged under this Vote? Are they asked to take with them a list of telephone numbers of responsible Ministers whom they have left behind so that, if necessary, they may get into touch with their colleagues? Are they asked to give to responsible colleagues at home, when they goon business in relation to the Foreign Office, the telephone numbers where they can be found abroad, so that even on Sunday it may be possible for the Prime Minister, if necessary, to get into touch with the Foreign Secretary, and not have his digestion spoilt at breakfast on Monday morning by receiving a totally unexpected letter telling him that something has been done which, while the Foreign Secretary thinks that it is right, the Prime Minister finds, several days later, is wrong.
The Lord President of the Council assured us this afternoon that the Council of Research tries to bring all the resources 302 of modern science to the defence forces, and one had hoped that the Foreign Office was a real defence force. It is a very great pity that at critical times in recent months the power of the Foreign Secretary to get into touch with his colleagues by means of the telephone was not known. It may be that he is not allowed to charge his calls from Paris to this country on the Public Vote, and he might not have taken the precaution of having sufficient French currency in his possession to ring up the Prime Minister. I wish to be as lenient as possible in any judgment which I pass upon any one who is not now in office, but there should be the most strict instruction given in future that the telephone is available and is to be used, and I hope that it will be possible to supply Ministers with a list of the numbers in this country with which they should keep in touch, and that even when they are in Paris it would not be too indiscreet for them to give the numbers at which they can be obtained.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Mr. BOOTHBY
I want to try and keep within the rules of order for two or three minutes. I should very much like to endorse what the hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has said. Nobody in this House would for a moment begrudge the Government any kind of telephone facilities between London, Paris and Geneva in future, and the greater the expenditure the more, I am sure, we should all be pleased. It could not amount to very much, and it would do nothing but good. There is one point in connection with the Naval Conference to which I should like to draw attention. No one wants the details of the proposals before the Conference at this stage, but in spite of what the right hon. Gentleman opposite said many of us on this side believe that the London Conference of 1930 was very disastrous from the point of view of this country, particularly as it caused us to build at enormous expense a great number of cruisers which are now completely and absolutely obsolete, lacking in armour, of great size, and enormous targets, with guns of a calibre which could not stand up to those of foreign cruisers built at the same period.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
The hon. Member is under a misapprehension. Can he point to any single cruiser built as a 303 result of the Conference of 1930 which answers to that charge? Is he thinking of the Washington Treaty and the cruisers built as a result of that Conference His remarks certainly do not apply to any cruisers built as a result of the 1930 Conference.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am afraid that we are now getting perilously near to what I have said would not be in order.
§ Mr. BOOTHBY
In those circumstances I have no intention of answering my right hon. Friend. I would merely say that I believe I am perfectly right in what I said, and on a more suitable occasion I should like to go through the list of ships built after the London Conference and to show how inferior they are to the ships of other Powers built in the same period. Many of us have been very anxious about the Naval Agreement with Germany, and I should like the Secretary of State to give the Committee a general assurance that whatever else may be the result of the present Naval Conference it will ensure that the ships to be constructed in the future for our fleet will be at least as up-to-date and modern and with as heavy armament and as great a calibre of guns as those constructed by any other Power.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ Mr. MAXTON
I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the hon. Member for East Aberdeen (Mr. Boothby) in their suggestion with regard to the telephone. I think the conclusion come to by the Government as a result of the regrettable instance of the telephone call which did not take place, was that the telephonic method of carrying on diplomacy by our Foreign Ministers running across to the Continent and having casual conversations with Foreign Ministers abroad, was not good. It was too irresponsible, and we have decided to revert to the more solid and sedate way of making our representations in writing through the Ambassadors in all appropriate cases. On the whole, that is a more responsible way of doing things than the casual method of telephone conversation.
§ The CHAIRMAN
Hon. Members are very clever in their attempts at confining their remarks within the limits of order, but I am afraid that the hon. Member 304 is now becoming rather bold. There are certain things which we must not discuss on this Vote. Even if there is no Minister at Geneva there may be some secretary or clerk there who may use the telephone.
§ Mr. MAXTON
Yes, but we are discussing a very substantial increase in the cost of telephone calls for foreign affairs during the period which covers the regrettable incident to which I have referred. Surely, when we are asked to pass a Supplementary Estimate for increased telephone costs, we are entitled to discuss alternative ways of doing the same business, which might at one and the same time be more responsible and less costly. That is what is meant by the House of Commons keeping control over finance.
§ The CHAIRMAN
I am very anxious not to disagree with the hon. Member, but I think that, on reflection, he will agree with me that, However true what he has said may be, this is not the occasion on which we can discuss the policy of Ministers going abroad.
§ Sir WILLIAM DAVISON
Would it be possible for us to suggest to the Minister that £600 of additional expenditure in telephone calls is excessive and that this expenditure might have been avoided had Ministers stayed at home and conducted their negotiations in the normal way?
§ The CHAIRMAN
The hon. Member is putting a hypothetical point, apparently arising on his intended speech which it is not yet his turn to make.
§ Mr. MAXTON
I do not want to pursue the matter any further, in view of your Ruling, but I would remind the Foreign Secretary, when he is being pressed by my two hon. Friends to adopt telephone diplomacy, that the considered opinion of his leader was that that kind of diplomacy should be discarded in favour of the more sedate methods of the past.
§ Mr. BOOTHBY
I would remind the hon. Member that we were not arguing in favour of telephone diplomacy but for more inter-communication between Members of His Majesty's Government.
§ Mr. MAXTON
I think the decision come to by the Go N eminent was that 305 His Majesty's Ministers should stay at home instead of going dancing all over the Continent. The Prime Minister wanted to keep his children round about him. However, I will leave that point and turn to another, on which I think the Government are entitled to our congratulations. I have never been one to withhold congratulations even from a Government to which I was opposed when I thought that they deserved to be congratulated. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the success of the device by which the expenses of the Naval Conference are more than met by the fees that the persons attending the conference had to pay to secure attendance. I think that is a sound idea, and I hope that the policy will be further developed. Perhaps they may even go to the length of financing the next war by selling the film rights, or something of that sort. It is a sound idea and I do not withhold my meed of praise to the Foreign Secretary for having devised it.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Mr. EDEN
I am afraid that the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) has given us credit for a Scottish quality which the Foreign Office does not possess. The fees to which he refers are not fees for foreigners coming into this country but additional passport charges for people leaving the country. I should like to bring about what measure of appeasement I can between the points of view of hon. Members with regard to the use of telephones in diplomacy. I would point out that this Vote has nothing to do with the Diplomatic Service, and these telephone charges are the charges for calls from London to foreign countries and not fees for calls from foreign capitals to us in London.
I make no complaint that the House should want more information than I have been able to give them regarding the Naval Conference. The right hon. Gentleman opposite was fully justified in quoting from what took place in 1930 and stating that prior to or during the Conference information was given to the House. I have had some experience of conferences and my view is that if you wish to obtain results it is not the best method of securing them to lay White Papers while you are in the course of negotiations. At the beginning of the present Conference an arrangement was 306 entered into, which has been loyally kept by everybody at the Conference, that during the course of the Conference no statement should be made as to the progress which was being recorded but that at the close of the Conference a full statement would be possible. That was agreed to 'between all those attending the Conference. In that there is no novel departure. The novelty of the departure would be to cut up the body in order to look at it before you know Whether it is going to survive or not. The normal procedure is to reserve a statement until the close of the Conference, whether it proves successful or otherwise.
At the moment I can make two statements to the Committee in reply to the specific questions put to me. We are at this moment trying to get agreement, and my Noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty has for many months put in a great deal of effort to try and bring about a successful result of the Conference. Generally, the objective of His Majesty's Government is to reduce the size and the cost of ships of all categories. We are also insisting, as before, on qualitative limitation, because we regard that as indispensable if the results of the Conference are to be wholly satisfactory. I hope that with that explanation the Committee will appreciate that I have said as much as I can without doing something which I know the Committee would not wish me to do, and that is either to break faith with the delegates at the Conference or embarrass this Vote. I suggest that what we are concerned with is not the result of the Conference but whether or not we can have a Conference at all. If the Committee are in agreement on that, I 'hope they will now allow me to have the Vote.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
We have had a long Debate, with every speaker wondering whether or not he was in order. That has not been due to the Ruling of the Chair, because you have been strictly following what has been the practice on what has been little more than a token Vote, but it is due to the fact that the Government were unwilling to go beyond what the Foreign Secretary has given to us in the way of information. The statement of the right hon. Gentleman in which he suggests that the issue of a White Paper either immediately before 307 or during a conference is not necessarily conducive to the success of the conference but may be likely to retard progress and success, is not our experience on this side in regard to naval matters. The very precedent which we have quoted of the White Paper isued in February, 1930, is surely proof of that. We did at that conference secure complete Agreement between the three major naval Powers, and in the case of two other Powers we secured complete agreement on technical questions which had held up for so long the naval affairs side of the Preparatory Commission on Disarmament at Geneva. Therefore, the actual issue of the White Paper by the Labour Government in 1930, far from hindering us, was a great help to the conference and a great assistance to its success. The truth about the Government and the present conference in London is that they have not a very easy conscience. They have not been anything like as anxious for the success of the conference in the way of ultimate disarmament as some previous Governments have been.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
That is our impression. If the right hon. Gentleman will not give us the information for which we ask, when we are asked to vote £4,500 for the cost of the conference, he cannot expect us to come to any other conclusion. If you take his statement that the only announcements which have been made are the announcements, by agreement, I take it, in Press bulletins, I must refer to the announcement in the "Times" on the 7th February and ask whether these statements are true. It says there:The outcome of these divergencies of view, which were revealed in last year's preliminary conversations, was the figures adopted last week by the conference as the basis from which the sub-cornmitee's discussions should begin. These figures were:Capital ships—35,000 tons and 14 inch guns with a possible reduction of 2,000 or 3,000 tons.
Aircraft Carriers.—22,000 tons and 6.1 inch guns.
A-class cruisers.—No more to be built during the term of the Treaty.
B-class cruisers.—7,500 to 8,000 tons and 6.1 inch guns.
Submarines.2 — 2,000 tons and 5.1 inch guns."
308 Are those statements correct? If the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the Committee just now is to be taken that you have been making statements through the Press by agreement with the Powers, are those statements correct? Is that an official bulletin I think we are right in suggesting that the Government have not been too anxious about getting on with disarmament if that is the kind of treaty that has been agreed to, for we have no information from the Government at all as to what their proposals in the conference have been. Here we are. We shall be, within a few days' time, arriving at the period of the discussion of the fighting Services Estimates, at perhaps one of the most important points in such a discussion in the whole of our post-War history. We have not the slightest reliable information at this moment as to what is happening at this important conference of the at present four principal Naval Powers, Japan having left.
I think it is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and I do not think the Foreign Secretary can possibly be justified in asking us to give approval to this Vote to day without giving us, and through us the country itself, a much more full and frank statement. I must say, therefore, that I protest very strongly against this procedure, because I am anxious that it should not be regarded as a precedent in regard to subsequent conferences. I am very anxious to safeguard that. If any such future conferences come, we must have not only the right to demand, but the right to get, adequate and proper information, before the conference or during it, as to what the Government's policy is and as to which afterwards we shall be asked to be committed.
§ Sir P. HANNON
Surely the right hon. Gentleman knows that before the Naval Estimates are submitted to this House, a White Paper is issued by the First Lord of the Admiralty fully explaining the Government's policy.