HC Deb 03 December 1957 vol 579 cc212-7
48. Mr. Mason

asked the Prime Minister what specific undertaking he has received from the United States Government that Her Majesty's Government would be consulted if the United States Government thought it urgently necessary to signal bombers carrying hydrogen bombs, already in the air, operating from British bases to bomb enemy territory.

49. Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister what agreement he reached with the President of the United States of America as to the procedure by which British-based United States planes carrying hydrogen bombs on patrol will obtain a joint decision from the two Governments before dropping their bombs in an emergency; and whether he will make a statement.

51. Mr. Zilliacus

asked the Prime Minister what specific undertakings the United States Government have given to Her Majesty's Government that they will not signal bombers carrying hydrogen bombs already in the air, operating from British bases, to bomb enemy territory, without first consulting Her Majesty's Government; and whether these undertakings apply to so-called tactical atomic weapons as well as to hydrogen bombs of strategic calibre.

60. Mr. Warbey

asked the Prime Minister what joint decisions have already been made by the British and the United States Governments regarding the circumstances in which United States bombers, operating from bases in this country, may take instant retaliatory action and what those circumstances are.

The Prime Minister

I would refer to the Answers I gave on this subject on Thursday, 28th November, to which I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to add.

I would only repeat that all these cases are covered by the Attlee-Churchill understandings.

Mr. Mason

Does the Prime Minister realise that the House and indeed the country is perturbed as to the extent we are already committed by an act of the American Government without any more consultation? Will he assure the House that, no matter what the circumstances, British-based American bombers will not be given a signal to bomb enemy territory without the prior approval of Her Majesty's Government having been sought?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The hon. Member has correctly stated the situation. These machines, whether standing upon the runway or actually in the air, are covered by the understanding which was first entered into by Mr. Attlee when he was Prime Minister and afterwards confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill). They are covered completely by that understanding.

Mr. Zilliacus

Does not the Prime Minister agree that these arrangements are subject to errors of judgment or other human frailties by the pilots and that peace hangs on a hair-trigger with these arrangements? Would he explain why it is necessary to have bombers on patrol with nuclear bombs on board and others ready to take off at fifteen minutes' notice, in view of the fact that the Leader of the House explained to me in reply to my Question on 31st October that the Government's civil defence plans are based on the expectation of getting sufficiently advanced notice of the outbreak of hostilities to evacuate 12 million people?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. It is clearly necessary for all the forces concerned, whether American or British, for patrol and training purposes to operate with their weapons on board. [HON MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because it is the only way to learn to handle them and to use them and to make them effective They have to be loaded. There is a very elaborate arrangement for loading them in and taking them out again. If they are to be use at all they must be carried for training purposes, and I think it is right that they should be carried for patrol purposes, but, as I have explained, there were very careful arrangements by which these weapons were technically called "not armed." The process of arming them is quite an operation and cannot be carried out except upon the direct instructions which, as I have said, under the Attlee-Churchill understandings would be given only by the two Governments in agreement.

Mr. Warbey

Is the Prime Minister aware that he has not answered the specific point raised in my Question, No. 60? Is he aware that his replies so far today and on previous days have related to the question of joint decision at a time when military action was taking place or was imminent? Will he give an assurance that no joint decision ha already been taken under these agreements which will affect the possibility of instant retaliatory action being taken in the event of a possible false report of ballistic missiles heading for this country or for American bases?

The Prime Minister

Of course the joint decision will be taken by the Governments of the day when the time comes, if ever; and I hope it will never come.

Mr. G. Brown

May I make two points which are causing much worry in the House and outside? First of all, the Prime Minister continues to rest on arrangements made by the right hon. Gentleman who was then Mr. Attlee and is now Lord Attlee—arrangements made at a time when the H-bomb as we now understand it did not exist. Can the Prime Minister say whether he has brought that agreement up to de to in the light of the new scientific discoveries which have taken place since that day and since the speeded-up tempo? The additional possibilities inherent in the present-day H-bomb may, for all that we know, make an agreement entered into in those days less relevant now than it was then. Secondly, whatever the danger may be of a crash setting off an explosion—and I am sorry if I am going too fast—can the Prime Minister assure us that the crash cannot cause a fall-out of radioactive material caused by the breaking of the container in which the bomb is kept?

The Prime Minister

Replying to the first question, it seems to me that if under those conditions it was right to have the agreement as to the use of American bombers placed on British bases in days when, admittedly, the weapons were not so powerful, although very formidable, it is all the more important that that agreement should be maintained in its full strength today; and so it is. I could, of course, answer the second part of the question, but it is perhaps a little wrong for me to do so. There are four Questions on this subject. Although I could give the answer, I think it would be fairer to those hon. Members who have put down this specific question if I were to leave it until Thursday. I am entirely in the hands of the House, but it is rather unusual to answer Questions in this way. If the House wishes, I will answer it.

As I explained last week—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman was not in the House—there is no danger of an explosion. In the event of a crash in this or in any other country of a machine carrying atomic or hydrogen bombs, or indeed of a machine in transit carrying nuclear material in any form, whether by air or on the land, it is, of course, possible that there may be an oxidisation of any plutonium concerned. Plutonium oxidises fairly easily. The danger would be of a very limited kind and would be dealt with at once under the established precautionary procedures. The hazards of uranium 235 are far less than from plutonium because it neither burns nor oxidises easily. I do not therefore think that the risks referred to—there is none from an explosion—are sufficient to justify any action which would seriously reduce the state of readiness or the training of bomber aircraft, whether British or American.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Butler.

Mrs. Castle

On a point of order. In view of the fact that, with your permission and the permission of the House, the Prime Minister has answered my Question No. 56, may I please have the usual privilege of asking a supplementary question?

Mr. Speaker

I think the proper procedure, if the hon. Lady is not satisfied with what she has heard, is for her to put down another Question. The Prime Minister did not say that he was replying to the hon. Lady's Question.

Mrs. Castle rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are far behind time.

Mr. A. Henderson

Will the Prime Minister make it clear whether he did or did not answer the four Questions concerned, or did he just quote from one of the Answers?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I had prepared an Answer and I was asked to give at any rate that part of it which appeared to cover the question asked by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown). I hope that in the circumstances, Mr. Speaker, you would be ready to waive whatever rule of privilege is involved. If I did wrong, I did it only to try to satisfy the House. If the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) put the Question down again perhaps you would feel, in the circumstances, that it was not incorrect that it should appear again and be answered in due course either in the same or perhaps in longer terms.

Mr. Speaker

I think that is the best course. I would point out to the hon. Lady that if in fact the Prime Minister purported to answer her Question specifically, he was out of order, because he had not previously asked my permission to do so, and Question Time was over.