HC Deb 05 April 1950 vol 473 cc1198-203
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Shinwell)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the third meeting of the North Atlantic Defence Committee, which took place at the Hague on 1st April and which I attended as the representative of His Majesty's Government.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to receive from the Military Committee and the Military Production and Supply Board reports on the progress made with planning for the common defence of the North Atlantic area. This work includes the consideration of many problems both in the field of strategy and in those of finance and supply. The Defence Committee had before them plans worked out by the Standing Group and the Military Committee with the help of the regional planning groups.

These plans were drawn up in accordance with the general conception approved by the Defence Committee in Paris in December last; and at The Hague all the Defence Ministers gave to these plans their unanimous approval. The various bodies established under the North Atlantic Treaty—the Military Committee and its Standing Group, the Military Production and Supply Board and the Permanent Working Staff of the Defence Financial and Economic Committee, as well as the regional planning groups—will now set to work to make further progress in the examination of how these plans can be implemented and of the availability of manpower, equipment and finance for putting them into operation.

Since the Defence Committee first met in Washington six months ago, substantial progress has been made. I was much impressed by the resolution of all parties represented at the Conference to press on as rapidly as possible so that all the countries concerned may secure the full benefits which we expect to derive from the close association established under the North Atlantic Treaty, and which is undoubtedly of a character unprecedented in time of peace.

As hon. Members will appreciate there are many difficulties, including questions of finance and supply, still to be dealt with before the idea embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty can be fully realised. It certainly appeared to me that the Defence Ministers fully recognise this, and that the approach made by my colleagues in the Defence Committee is a realistic one. We have no illusions about the task which lies before us, or about the efforts which will be required to give effective force and content to the strategic plans to which we have, in principle, assented. Moreover, we recognise that, in accordance with the several procedures in our different countries, it will be important to give, from time to time, the fullest possible information about the state of the work and the progress being made.

I shall, of course, endeavour to keep the House informed, but hon. Members will recognise that, in the common interest, the countries concerned are bound to observe a high standard of security. I returned from The Hague much encouraged and stimulated by the personal contacts I was able to make with my Defence colleagues, many of whose problems have a marked resemblance to those of the United Kingdom, and I look forward to future meetings with them as opportunity offers and circumstances require.

Mr. Churchill

Is it not lamentable with all this well-turned official verbiage, and with all these meetings of great consequence between the most important people of different parts of the world, that so little real progress should have been made in making a front and a defence in the much more than 12 months which have elapsed since the Atlantic Tact was signed?

Mr. Shinwell

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to admit that in so short a time—he mentioned 12 months—real progress has been made. All the organisation had to be set up to begin with; and that has been achieved. It is not easy to set up an organisation of this kind, which comprises 12 countries, some of them very powerful and some not so powerful and with many varied interests. But that has been achieved. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate—as no one knows more about this than he, because he had the rather bitter experience of what transpired at the beginning of the last war—that it is not easy to build up equipment and manpower, even on the basis of well considered and well thought out plans. Plans have been well considered and well thought out, and we are making substantial progress.

I quite agree that if I say substantial progress is being made it sounds like a platitude. But I hope to dispose of platitudes as soon as it is possible to give to this House and to the country, and to all the countries concerned, fuller information.

Mr. Rhys Davies

In view of the very important statement made by my right hon. Friend, which sounds very much like preparations for another war, is it possible for us to have a Debate on this very serious declaration? Will it be possible to raise this issue when we are discussing the Budget?

Mr. Shinwell

The question of a Debate would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I can assure my hon. Friend, and other hon. Members, that the last thought we have is about preparation for war. What we are concerned with is defence and, quite properly, defence in view of the dangers which now present themselves to this very troubled world. We are concerned with the preparation of an adequate deterrent to a potential aggressor.

Brigadier Head

In the light of this conference and of our present Defence commitments, is the Minister satisfied that our present Defence policy is the one best calculated to enable us to carry out this task? Might it not be wise now to have a review of the whole of our present Defence policy, especially with regard to manpower?

Mr. Shinwell

I am satisfied that our Defence policy is the correct one. If I am asked a question whether that Defence policy can be immediately implemented I would direct attention to the many difficulties that present themselves; difficulties of manpower, of the creation of the necessary formations, agreement with other countries, the question of productive capacity, priorities and the like. While the policy is sound, and the plans are prepared they have to be carried through, and that requires very careful consideration.

Mr. Bellenger

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as a result of these concerted plans at The Hague, he envisages any substantial alteration in the commitments of Great Britain, either in the shape of increased manpower or official commitments?

Mr. Shinwell

That, obviously, does not arise at this stage, but if we enter into an agreement with other countries we, like those countries, must make our contribution, which will be an adequate one to the common cause.

Mr. Macdonald

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he intends to provide time after the Recess to Debate a Motion on the Order Paper in my name and that—

Mr. Speaker

We passed on from Business a long time ago.

Mr. H. Hynd

Can the Minister of Defence say anything about the decision alleged to have been reached at The Hague affecting the position of the Secretary of State for War?

Mr. Shinwell

All I can say to the House is that, in spite of Press appearances to the contrary, there was no discussions about the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. I know of no discussions, and if any suggestion had been made to me, either officially or unofficially, against the integrity and loyalty of my right hon. Friend I would have repudiated it at once.

Brigadier Prior-Palmer

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Chairman of the Western Union Defence Committee was present at the discussions?

Mr. Shinwell

The meeting at the Hague was in connection with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and was not concerned primarily with the Western Union Defence Organisation. Therefore, there was no reason why the Chairman of the Western Union Commanders-in-Chiefs Committee should be present.

Mr. A. Edward Davies

Will my right. hon. Friend tell us whether he has seen Press references and American reports, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), about the Secretary of State for War; and, further, will he use his influence in this arrangement to reduce the cost of Defence expenditure to relieve countries, at any rate in this part of the world?

Mr. Shinwell

The Estimates for 1950–51 have been before the House, and have been accepted, and there I must leave it. As regards the other matter, I have already given a quite adequate reply.

Mr. Profumo

In view of the official statement issued after this conference that the United States were to be charged with strategic bombing responsibilities, may I ask whether this country is no longer to attempt to build strategic bombing aeroplanes?

Mr. Shinwell

That does not arise out of the statement I have made, but I arm afraid the hon. Member is assuming too much.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is there any truth in the statement in the Sunday Press that the United States Government is recommending us to spend less on the Navy?

Mr. Shinwell

I have no knowledge of that statement.

Mr. A. R. W. Low

The right hon. Gentleman said that our commitments had not been settled. Surely, he will agree that it is about time some of our commitments under this scheme were settled.

Mr. Shinwell

We have entered into commitments respecting certain plans and the like, but surely the hon. Member would not wish us to enter into every commitment that is likely to arise and; which is now envisaged.

Mr. Harold Davies

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that most of us in this House would like to emphasise the principle of fair shares, with each one of the 12 countries bearing an equal ratio of their national income towards this Defence scheme?

Mr. Shinwell

We are, naturally, working towards that end, but, of course, there are difficulties.