HC Deb 08 March 1955 vol 538 cc405-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 523,000, all ranks, be maintained for the safety of the United Kingdom and the defence of the possessions of Her Majesty's Crown, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1956.

4.55 a.m.

Mr. Wigg

Will the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to answer a simple question? Do the Government stand by the pledge given by the Lord Chancellor, or do they not?

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman has referred to a pledge made some time ago. He has not quoted it, and he cannot expect me offhand to reply to his question. If he will be good enough to read it out, I will deal with it. I have not heard the particulars of the pledge to which he alludes, and he cannot expect me, without reference to the particulars of the pledge, to state my views or give any undertaking in respect of it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be more explicit.

Mr. Swingler

I am astonished by what the right hon. Gentleman has said, because it was only a very short time ago that I asked him a Question in the House in relation to the cost of reducing the National Service period by six months. In a supplementary question, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Strachey), who was Secretary of State for War at the time when conscription was lengthened to two years in 1950, reminded the right hon. Gentleman that pledges were given by the leaders of both political parties during the debates in the House in 1950 that this was a temporary measure relating to the Korean emergency. The pledge was given by my right hon. Friend. One of my hon. Friends is now engaged in looking up the quotation, and I can soon send it to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sorry that I have not got it with me, but I thought that it was sufficiently well known for it to be unnecessary to bring the relevant copy of HANSARD with me.

Mr. Head

I thought that the hon. Gentleman had got the actual quotation with him. The reason why I wanted particularly to hear what the present Lord Chancellor on behalf of the then Opposition said, was that I thought the hon. Gentleman implied that the pledge was that National Service would be reduced from two years to 18 months on the termination of the Korean crisis. It is my recollection that no such pledge as that was given.

My recollection is that the pledge was that, as this period had been increased to two years because of the situation which obtained at the time, it was not the intention of either side of the House, either the Opposition or the Government, to retain an exceptional measure of that nature unless the situation at the time fully justified it. That, as I understand it, was the pledge.

I have tried to point out that we consider that the present international situation, the present state of the foreign situation, necessitates the retention of this period of National Service.

Mr. Swingler

I agree that it would be wrong of me to suggest that the pledge was given in categorical terms that conscription would be reduced as soon as the Korean armistice was announced.

The pledge that was given by the present Lord Chancellor on behalf of the Conservative Opposition when my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State for War was that this extension of National Service to two years from 18 months was regarded as a purely temporary measure. It was made clear by the then Government that it had only been necessitated by the Korean emergency. It was the Korean war which had forced them to extend the period from 18 months to two years. Therefore, it was the natural expectation that the time when this pledge would be fulfilled was when the commitment in the Korean war had come to an end.

The pledge was not the specific terms that with the Korean armistice National Service would be reduced to 18 months.

But several months have now passed since the Korean armistice. The pledge then given that this was a temporary measure introduced because of the outbreak of the Korean war, which added to the then Government's commitments, can be fulfilled, because the Government's commitments have now been reduced. That is admitted by everybody. It is mentioned in the Defence White Paper. The commitments in respect of Korea and the Suez have been reduced, as have others.

5.0 a.m.

I see that some of my hon. Friends are engaged in searching through copies of the OFFICIAL REPORT. I am sorry that they have not yet found the quotation, but I can assure the Committee that it is there. I have quoted it a number of times in articles, and it was quoted during last year's debates. We shall soon produce it for the benefit of the Secretary of State, and it will be seen that the Conservative Opposition was committed to the view that the introduction of two years' conscription was a temporary measure, related to the emergency caused by the outbreak of the Korean war.

Lieut-Colonel Lipton

I think that the Committee will be indebted to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply, who appears to have come to the rescue of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War. I am sorry; it appears that that is not the case. The Secretary of State has not succeeded in locating the pledge. I feel sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) will be able to produce the reference if he is given a little time, but if the right hon. Gentleman desires to intervene now I shall be very glad to give way.

Mr. Head

Perhaps I may speak again, with the leave of the Committee. It seems to me that we are turning this discussion into a farce if we spend our time searching for something in the OFFICIAL REPORT. I am not trying to shirk the issue, but it would be nice to know the precise wording of the pledge.

Mr. Wigg

It is contained in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 15th September, 1950. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, as he then was, said:

I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) to consider whether he should press this new Clause in the circumstances of today. I should like to say for myself and for those who sit with me that we feel just as strongly as anyone who has given expression to the same view that this proposal should not be a permanent part of our national set-up. I will not go into the past—we have our own claims, but I am certainly not going into them again—but we feel as strongly as anyone else that what we aim at and want is a strong Regular Army."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th September, 1950; Vol. 478, c. 1504–5.]

Mr. Head

The hon. Gentleman has created something of a storm in a teacup. As far as this pledge is concerned—and I feel that I was justified in asking for chapter and verse about it—I can confirm it absolutely to the full on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

Resolved, That a number of Land Forces, not exceeding 523,000, all ranks, be maintained for the safety of the United Kingdom and the defence of the possessions of Her Majesty's Crown, during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1956.

To report Resolution and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Legh.]

Report to be received this day; Committee to sit again this day.

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