HC Deb 15 July 1941 vol 373 cc459-63
The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)

I have a few words to say about the Business of the House. I am somewhat concerned at the effects produced abroad and overseas by the two days' Debate on Production. Statements that our industry is only working 75 per cent. of some unspecified standard and that the Ministry of Aircraft Production is in chaos from top to bottom tend to give a general impression in the United States and the Dominions, particularly Australia, that things are being very ill-managed here and that we are not trying our best. It is impossible for the newspapers to report our Debates except in a very abridged form, but sensational statements of this kind telegraphed all over the world do serious harm to our cause wherever they go. Moreover, they do not at all represent the immense and well-directed effort which is yielding remarkable results in almost every field of war production, and they do far from justice to the admirable tenure of the Ministry of Supply by my right hon. Friend the present President of the Board of Trade. I much regret that it was not possible for me, because of the many other things I have to do, to be present in the House except during the closing speeches of that Debate. It is obviously not possible for considered Ministerial answers to be submitted to these charges on the spur of the moment. It is not like ordinary party, peace-time fighting, when any score handed across the Table is good enough for the purposes of the occasion. These are very serious times in which we live. I have, however, read thoroughly the OFFICIAL REPORT of the two days' Debate, and I have given directions that all allegations of any serious substance shall be sent to the various Departments concerned in order that the facts may be ascertained. On the Third Sitting Day after 20th July I propose to set up the same Votes as were under discussion last week and to have a third day's Debate, in Public Session. I will myself endeavour to make a full and comprehensive statement on the whole question of production so far as the public interest permits. I hope by this means, which is inspired by the greatest possible respect for the House, to remove any mistaken and evil impression which may be doing us harm in any part of the world.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask the Prime Minister, with reference to the statement he proposes to make on Production, whether he proposes on that occasion to initiate a Debate or merely to make a statement?

The Prime Minister

I propose to have a third day's Debate and to initiate the Debate myself, and it will then be open for anyone to take up the quarrel, if they think there is any public advantage in so doing.

Mr. Shinwell

I did not myself participate in last week's Debate and so at least I can put a question with perfect freedom. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman suggested that it was difficult for Ministers to make an impromptu reply to all the points raised in the Debate. Is it not also difficult for hon. Members who are not in the Government to make a reply to my right hon. Friend, and will it not be perhaps even more difficult when he, who is in full possession of all the information, has initiated the Debate? Would it not be more desirable for my right hon. Friend to make a statement which can be read in the OFFICIAL REPORT by hon. Members and for us to have a Debate later on?

The Prime Minister

I do not mind, but when statements are made affecting the whole of our production, and the character of our production, perhaps an hour or two before the end of the Debate, it is quite impossible for Ministers to do justice to them in their answers. If we were engaged in ordinary party politics it would be quite easy to throw cheap scores across the House, to the gratification of the supporters of a Government who are in a majority; but in time of war time for the preparation of a much more reasoned answer is required. Grave consideration has to be given not only to the actual facts but to what part of those facts can be stated in public, and in what form they can be stated in public, and I certainly could not undertake to answer all the charges that are made in the course of a Debate without having the opportunity of considering the matter maturely and comprehensively beforehand.

Earl Winterton

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about the course of the Debate? I presume that if the right hon. Gentleman makes his opening statement in answer to the points which were made in the course of the previous Debate, other hon. Members will follow him. Will some Minister reply at the end of the Debate, so that there will be, as it were, answers given to the answerers? Some hon. Members may have the temerity to differ from the view put by the right hon. Gentleman.

The Prime Minister

Every endeavour will be made to preserve the general liveliness of our discussions.

Mr. Maxton

While appreciating the right hon. Gentleman's difficulty, namely, that it is more difficult to reply in wartime to charges made by his supporters, than it is in peace-time to answer charges made by his opponents, may I ask him this question? Since it is, as he says, the effect created abroad by these statements which is disturbing, will the right hon. Gentleman turn his attention to the fact that he has a Ministry of Information which exercises control over what is to go abroad? If the Government had dealt a little more efficiently with the Debate of a week ago, they would not have had any difficulty about the forthcoming Debate.

The Prime Minister

The Ministry of Information places no ban upon full publication all over the world of the public Debates in this House. Anything that is said here goes into these other countries, and that is why great responsibility attaches to what is said here.

Mr. Lawson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is not only people abroad who are disturbed about these statements but people in this country and that there will be great satisfaction that he has undertaken to meet these points? Will he also take note of the fact that whatever the circumstances, it has been a rather too frequent practice on the part of Ministers to evade answering questions and criticisms?

The Prime Minister

I cannot admit that there has been any practice of evasion. I do not see why we should evade. We neither need to evade nor to shrink from dividing if necessary and we are perfectly capable of defending ourselves, but in a time of war when the affairs of the country are very complicated, and when enormous business is divided among a great number of Ministers, it is not possible to give the same answers on every topic that is raised as could be done when the ordinary party fight was in progress. Every prominent politician on both sides is well acquainted with that fact.

Mr. Mander

In the forthcoming Debate on Production, would the Prime Minister be good enough to bear in mind the friendly advice given to the Government from all parts of the House last week, in regard to the setting up of a Ministry of Production; and would he be good enough to deal with that in the course of the proceedings?

The Prime Minister

I am always indebted to my hon. Friend for the great quantity of friendly advice which he is always ready to give, but I should like to have the opportunity of preparing my own speech in my own way.

Mr. Pickthorn

Is it intended to have the same procedure about the Propaganda Debate as about the Production Debate, that is, to have a supplementary Debate to fill the gaps and correct the errors?

The Prime Minister

I do not think I regard the Propaganda Debate as one which has the same far-reaching consequences upon our reputation for carrying on the war, as to reflections upon our system of production. As far as the Government are concerned, I do not think that is likely.

Viscountess Astor

Unless the Government take notice of that Debate on Propaganda—which was the worst day this Government has ever had in the House—it may have far more disastrous results in foreign countries, than anything said about Supply.

The Prime Minister

I do not agree at all. I think the newspapers have given most interesting and vivid and lively accounts, and I think the B.B.C. have given very excellent accounts of what is going on—more than have ever been attempted in time of war before.

Mr. Garro Jones

May I put one point to the Prime Minister? As one who was present during the whole of the earlier Debate and made some small contribution to its earlier stages, may I ask whether, in addition to the criticisms that were made, he will take into account also the many constructive suggestions which were put forward and whether in his opening statement, on the next occasion, he will provide some answers to them?

The Prime Minister

I will do my best to serve the House, but I think I should be trespassing on their indulgence, if I carried on this heterogeneous colloquy any longer.