HC Deb 25 October 1955 vol 545 cc33-7

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

59. Sir T. MOORE

To ask the Prime Minister if he is now in a position to make a statement in regard to the future scope and responsibilities of the Minister of Defence.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The responsibilities of the Minister of Defence are defined in Command Paper 6923, presented to Parliament in October, 1946. In the view of Her Majesty's Government the Central Organisation for Defence set out in that paper continues to be basically sound. While the Prime Minister must retain ultimate responsibility in defence matters, it is the Government's intention that the authority and influence of the Minister of Defence should be strengthened. I have made certain arrangements within the Government to co-ordinate under the Minister of Defence planning and training for the joint action of civil and military forces in Home Defence. As a result of the transfer—which the House will remember—from the Ministry of Supply of certain functions connected with the iron, steel and engineering industries, that Ministry has become mainly a fourth Defence Department within the co-ordinating powers of the Minister of Defence.

I am also making it clear that the Minister of Defence's responsibility for the apportionment of available resources between the three Services extends to a responsibility for seeing that the composition and balance of forces within individual services meets the strategic policy laid down by the Defence Committee.

Her Majesty's Government have further decided to create a new post of Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. This officer, and the other three Chiefs of Staff, will jointly be the professional military advisers of the Government. He will normally be the United Kingdom representative on the Military Committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and on other international defence organisations.

This appointment will not affect the right of an individual Chief of Staff to tender his personal advice should he differ from his colleagues. Her Majesty's Government believe that this appointment, while not altering the collective responsibility of the Chiefs of Staff Committee for the tendering of military advice as described in paragraph 31 of the 1946 Command Paper, will materially improve the efficiency of the organisation for defence.

Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

I am also able to tell the House that the Secretary of State for Air is this afternoon issuing a statement that Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment of Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle as Chief of the Air Staff in succession to Sir William Dickson.

Mr. Attlee

What will be the exact position of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in relation to his own Service? Previously, the conception was that we had a Chief of Staff in commission, and that each member of it was also responsible in his Department, and drew all his information from his Department. Is the new Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff to be left rather out on a limb and away from his Department, or is he to have staff as well at the Ministry of Defence?

The Prime Minister

The responsibility of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff will, of course, be with his colleagues, with the other three, collectively to the Government, to whom they are responsible. Individually, in his N.A.T.O. capacity, or like responsibility, the responsibility will be to the Minister of Defence, and he will not, therefore, be acting in any sense in his previous existence, if I may put it like that. As to staff, he would in the main have the use of the existing Chiefs of Staff organisation, and we would not anticipate or provide for any great staff increases. I may add that all the technical advice I have been able to get is in favour of this arrangement. I can say that, and that one of the reasons we are doing that, and felt we must do it, apart from anything else, is that the burden which now falls on the Chiefs of Staff, especially in respect of a great many of these international organisations, is so heavy that they must be relieved of it—quite apart from the value we think this organisation itself will have.

Mr. Attlee

Is there not rather a difficulty in this instance of having two officers from one of the Services? Are we not then liable to get at cross-purposes, when one is in day-to-day touch with the Service and one, as I rather suggest, is rather out on a limb?

The Prime Minister

I do not think so, because the officer who takes the office of Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff—this has happened many times in war before— can divest himself of what we may call his natural uniform, what he was wearing before, and does not remain interested only in the work of the Air Force. Admittedly, it depends on the men, but this country has always been able to find the men and I feel certain that the men will work this set-up well.

Sir T. Moore

While thanking my right hon. Friend for the statement, may I ask whether he appreciates that it is somewhat complicated and has wide repercussions? After we have had an opportunity of reading the statement, will it be possible to have a debate on the subject at a later date?

The Prime Minister

If we are to have a defence debate that could come into it.

Mr. Stokes

While appreciating what the Prime Minister said about the Supply Ministry coming in as a fourth arm, may I ask whether he means that the future powers of the Minister of Defence will give that Minister authority to take decisions himself and, so to speak, bang the heads of the Service Ministers together to ensure decisions being taken, so that the right things can be produced at the right times?

The Prime Minister

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's metaphors, I hope he will not mind my saying that I would rather see that question on the Order Paper.

Mr. Shinwell

While the steps which the Prime Minister is proposing to take will undoubtedly strengthen the influence of the Minister of Defence, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman would not agree that if the Ministry of Defence is to be thoroughly effective he must go a stage further and interfere with the autonomy of the three Service Departments, particularly the autonomy of the Board of Admiralty, the Air Council and the Army Council? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that, however strong the Minister of Defence may be, or thinks he may be, even with the help of the new officer who is in charge of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the Board of Admiralty will defeat him every time. [Laughter.]—I know something about it—unless the powers of the Minister of Defence are so strengthened that the Board of Admiralty and the other Councils are subordinate to the Chiefs of Staff, the new officer, and the Minister of Defence?

The Prime Minister

I seem to have heard some of these technical arguments somewhere before, I cannot think where, but I am not asking the House this afternoon to embark on these questions, important as they are. What I am asking the House to embark upon is a comparatively modest step which, I think, will help the organisation—and my technical advisers also believe that it will assist them—and I hope that the House will approve of what we are doing.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Ministry of Defence will have some responsibility for co-ordinating the scientific research programmes which are being undertaken for individual Services?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. That exists already.

Mr. Strachey

Referring to the original question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Attlee) on the staff for the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, may I ask whether it will not be indispensable for him to have some staff in the Ministry of Defence or elsewhere if he is really to carry out these co-ordinating duties?

The Prime Minister

There are, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the joint staffs already whom he can use and to whom he will have access. We have considered this very carefully and we do not consider that a great amount of additional staff will be necessary.

Major Legge-Bourke

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask whether there will be any consequential alteration in the communication and liaison between the Foreign Office, the Chiefs of Staff and the joint planning staff?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, not in these circumstances.

Mr. Wigg

Will not the Prime Minister agree that unless he introduces legislation to give the Minister of Defence some power over the Service Ministers, the statement he has made this afternoon is meaningless eyewash?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I think that it is a useful piece of work.