HC Deb 26 January 1954 vol 522 cc1606-9
46. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister whether, before deciding to accept the new Belgian rifle, he consulted with the United States Government; and whether the United States Government are in agreement with the British decision.

Mr. Wyatt

On a point of order. I had three Questions down to the Prime Minister on this subject which were printed on the Notice Paper yesterday. They were printed in an order different from that which I requested. When I asked the Clerk at the Table if I could alter the order I was told no rearrangement was possible at that late hour. Further, late last night the Prime Minister, who felt understandably that he would be embarrassed by answering the Questions, rearranged the Questions to such an extent that they are now scattered to the four corners of the Order Paper. They are Questions Nos. 79, 96 and 97. I was not informed of this until this morning.

All I am asking you, Mr. Speaker, is whether the Prime Minister had the right at a late hour last night to rearrange the Order Paper, when I was not allowed to rearrange even my own Questions, and also the wording of one of the Questions. Surely the Prime Minister, as a Member of this House, does not have any more right than any other Member with regard to the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

As to rearranging the Order Paper, I have never known that function undertaken by any Department, but this appears to be a question of some transference of Questions asked of the Prime Minister to a Department. I have previously stated that that is entirely a matter for Ministers, over which I have no control. The hon. Member also complains that he did not hear about this until this morning. I have previously expressed the opinion—which is all I can do—that as long notice as possible should be given to the hon. Member concerned if Questions are transferred.

The Prime Minister

I am very sorry if any inconvenience has been caused, but the Questions were of a highly detailed and technical character, and had to be examined by the Departments concerned. It was only when I saw the proposed answers that I realised that they opened no new or important points of principle, and, therefore, I thought they should be transferred to the Departments technically responsible.

Now, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), whose excursions into other fields I have admired, while the decision to adopt the Belgian rifle rested entirely with Her Majesty's Government, the United States military authorities have been kept fully informed. I have reason to believe that they concur in out view.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the United States authorities have stated that they have no use for the new Belgian rifle at present, and probably not for many years, because they are fully equipped with their present rifle? Is he also aware that last week, in reply to Questions on this subject, he argued that standardisation was necessary. If the United States authorities are not to use the Belgian rifle, where does standardisation come in? Incidentally, may I ask him why, when he tested the Belgian rifle yesterday, he did not take the opportunity of testing the new British rifle? Why this preference for foreign products?

The Prime Minister

I did test the new British rifle last year, but I do not pretend to be an expert on these matters. The recommendations on which I have acted have been made under the responsibility of the War Office, and approved by the Ministry of Defence, and I have deferred to the professional opinion expressed by those two Departments. On general grounds, having had some contact with questions affecting rifles over the last 60 years, I felt very much in agreement with the decision taken by the responsible technical Departments. I think it is very lucky for us that we did not get launched out on a solitary voyage on the .280 or, as it is called, the E.M.2, for 10 years, with the Army having duplicate weapons and no other Army in the world on that system or calibre. We might have been.

I fully confess that I admired the .280 and that I pressed hard in the United States that they should adopt it. If they had adopted it, it would have made a great difference, but they would not adopt it, and the question of our going on alone is a very serious one. In fact, I do not think anybody could possibly defend our conducting a private, isolated operation while at the same time our entire military system tends to work with as many countries as possible in the line.

Mr. Attlee

Was not one of the questions between the British and the American rifle a question of the calibre of the bullet, of the ammunition? That, I understand, has now been settled, so that there is no question about interchangeability of the ammunition. May I also ask this question: at the moment the right hon. Gentleman has decided to go with the Belgians but not, I gather, with the United States, who have come to no firm decision. Is not that so? Thirdly, would he explain to the House some of the details of this Belgian rifle which appears, from the point of view of any one used to rifles, to be very complicated? I understand that it has to have all sorts of bits put on to it before anybody can use a bayonet.

The Prime Minister

Canada is taking the greatest interest in this matter, but it is a very difficult and complicated matter to argue. I would gladly take part in a debate on the subject if an opportunity could be found in the course of the debate on the Army Estimates.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

We need more time.

The Prime Minister

I shall be delighted to enter the lists, and I hope the hon. Member for Aston (Mr. Wyatt) will keep his ardour for that occasion.

Mr. Strachey

Cannot the Prime Minister at least tell us on what grounds all his experts who. three years ago unanimously agreed that the British rifle was, on balance, superior, have changed the advice which they tendered at that time? Why, when the calibre position has been solved, should they now change over from the British design to the Belgian design? That is the point at issue.

The Prime Minister

Because they think that the essential qualities are at least equally well presented in the Belgian form and that many other convenient aspects of a more general character—important in a weapon of this class—are also much better presented—for instance to carry it on the march, to use it for manual exercises. It has a butt—remember that; it is very important when one has no ammunition left to have a butt on one's rifle. That does not always occur to the technician. It is also a very convenient weapon to use with the bayonet, and it also can fire in a dangerously short time all the ammunition which can ever be carried to the front.

Mr. Attlee

As the right hon. Gentleman has gone into some technicalities, may I ask him whether it is not a fact that an extra part has to be added at night to conceal the flash? When it is on, one has to take it off again in order to put on the bayonet. I think that would be highly inconvenient.

The Prime Minister

I should be very glad to organise an exhibition of the rifle and to facilitate Members of Parliament going to see it on a rifle range. They are welcome to fire it if they choose, provided adequate arrangements are made for pairing.