HC Deb 27 February 1936 vol 309 cc653-7
Mr. ATTLEE (by Private Notice)

asked the Prime Minister whether he can make any statement as to the intention of the Government in the matter of coordination of the Defence Services?


Yes, Sir. This is a matter to which increasing attention has necessarily been devoted during recent months. It has been my experience that, apart altogether from defence questions, the all-round pressure of work has tended to increase in recent years, with a corresponding increase in the de- mands upon the Cabinet and, in particular, upon the Prime Minister.

When, as was explained in March last, in spite of all the efforts of successive Governments to secure international disarmament, it became clear that we could no longer delay active preparations for remedying the deficiencies in our fighting services, and when, over and above that, we were faced with our responsibilities as a member of the League of Nations in the Italo-Abyssinian situation, it was obvious that in the near future there were bound to be large numbers of important and difficult defence questions requiring unremitting attention. As there appears to be no likelihood of any diminution in the other demands upon the time and attention of the Prime Minister, it has become clear in the course of a thorough examination of the whole problem that, for the time being at any rate, he must have some special assistance in regard to defence matters. This, of course, does not mean that the Prime Minister can divest himself of the final responsibility for directing the co-ordination of defence, nor can there be any weakening of the responsibility of the individual Service Ministers.

Bearing in mind these principles, we have reached certain decisions. Before saying what these decisions are I should, perhaps, explain that the Committee of Imperial Defence—of which the Prime Minister is Chairman—has long been, and must still remain, an essential link in all matters of defence. This coordinating instrument must be in a continual state of development and adaptation to meet the circumstances of the time, and when the Government set themselves to the task of working out the defence proposals now under consideration, they set up last July a special Ministerial Sub-Committee known as the Defence Policy and Requirements Committee, to keep the defensive situation as a whole constantly under review so as to ensure that our defence arrangements and our foreign policy are in line, and to advise the Cabinet and Committee of Imperial Defence in the light of the international and financial situation as to any necessary changes in policy or in the defence proposals. I have mentioned this important Sub-Committee so that the references to it that I shall make in announcing the decisions that have been reached may be intelligible.

It has been decided that, while the Prime Minister will retain, as be clearly must, the Chairmanship of the Committee of Imperial Defence and of the Defence Policy and Requirements Committee, a Minister will be appointed as Deputy-Chairman of these Committees to whom the Prime Minister will delegate the following duties:

  1. (i). The general day-to-day supervision and control on the Prime Minister's behalf of the whole organisation and activity of the Committee of Imperial Defence; the co-ordination of executive action and of monthly progress reports to the Cabinet, or any Committee appointed by them, on the execution of the re-conditioning plans; discernment of any points which either have not been taken up or are being pursued too slowly, and (in consultation with the Prime Minister or other Ministers or Committees as required) of appropriate measures for their rectification;
  2. (ii). In the Prime Minister's absence, taking the Chair at the Committee of Imperial Defence and the Defence Policy and Requirements Committee;
  3. (iii). Personal consultation with the Chiefs of Staff together, including the right to convene under his chairmanship the Chiefs of Staff Committee whenever he or they think desirable;
  4. (iv). The chairmanship of the Principal Supply Officers Committee.
It will he the duty of the Deputy-Chairman to make such recommendations as he thinks necessary for improving the organisation of the Committee of Imperial Defence.

The position of the Chiefs of Staff Committee will be as follows:—The individuals composing it have a double function: each advises his own political chief, and acting together the Committee preserves unimpaired the right to submit confidential reports of their collective military view to the Chairman or Deputy-Chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence. It is not proposed that meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee should normally take place under the presidency of the Deputy-Chairman. He will supplement the present activities and initiative of the Chiefs of Staff Committee by guidance and initiative of his own, his function being to ensure that every aspect is fully considered and that difficulties and differences are frankly faced.

As I said earlier, the Minister will be in a position to make recommendations as to any improvement that he thinks necessary in the organisation of the Committee of Imperial Defence. In any event, and for purposes of co-ordinated planning, the existing Joint Planning Committee, which consists of the Directors of Plans in the three Service Departments, will be supplemented by three officers drawn respectilely from the Navy, Army and Air Force, who will be graduates of the Imperial Defence College.

The three new officers will hold official positions on the staffs of their respective Departments. Their work in their own Departments will be chiefly that of obtaining the necessary material for the preparation of joint plans. But their main work will be on collective plans prepared by the Joint. Planning Committee for submission to the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

In addition, steps have been approved for the strengthening of the Secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence.


When does the Prime Minister intend to inform the House as to who is to act in this position?


In due course; I am not in a position to do that to-day.


Is the right. hon. Gentleman now in a position to inform the House whether or not there is to be a change in the present secretaryship of the Committee of Imperial Defence?


I have nothing at the moment to add to that statement. It will, undoubtedly, be fully debated.


Will the Minister who is to act as Deputy-Chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence hold any other office, or will it be a whole-time appointment?


I think that it will be whole-time work.


Is it to be understood that it will be the practice for this important Minister to be in this House?


That I am not yet in a position to answer.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say when he will be able to inform the House of the name of the proposed Deputy-Chairman, and whether he is to be a Member of this House?


I hope, shortly.