HC Deb 24 April 1958 vol 586 cc1160-6
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I will make a statement about discussions on defence matters.

The proposal has from time to time been made that the Government should discuss defence matters with the Opposition in this House. At my suggestion, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition came to see me before the Easter Recess to talk over the possibilities of such discussions. We considered a plan that had been put forward by some hon. Members that there should be a Committee of this House to which secret information should be given by Ministers. The right hon. Gentleman and I were agreed that such a Committee would not be appropriate to our parliamentary system, and would entail great difficulties.

We also discussed the possibility of holding regular meetings of a confidential character, at which Privy Councillors from both sides of the House would also be present. The right hon. Gentleman informed me that after consideration he did not think that such an arrangement was compatible with the fulfilment by the Opposition of their constitutional function. He pointed out that in 1949, after three meetings of this kind, my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill). decided to discontinue them, doubtless because he felt that they hampered unduly his freedom of public criticism in the House of Commons.

I myself am sorry that the present Leader of the Opposition felt that the same difficulties would necessarily arise today, for I think that an experiment of this kind might well be repeated. However, I must accept the right hon. Gentleman's decision.

In our conversation, the right hon. Gentleman and I both recalled the long custom for Ministers to consult occasionally, informally and privately, with the Opposition on specific points. This is a long tradition of Parliament, and such talks have taken place on the initiative, sometimes of the Opposition, sometimes of the Government. I fully accept that this system is a good one but, of course, both the Government and the Opposition must hold themselves free to make, accept or reject invitations of this kind To be of any value, such meetings must be confidential and private.

While, therefore, I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not thought it right to agree to a more formal arrangement for discussion of the many defence problems which confront us, I am glad that the possibility of occasional consultation in the traditional manner remains open.

Mr. Gaitskell

I think that it is only necessary for me to say that the Prime Minister was good enough to agree with me the statement that he has made, before he made it.

Sir J. Duncan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us on this side regret the decision of the Leader of the Opposition, but are grateful to my right hon. Friend for having made the suggestion?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I can add anything. I also regret it, but I have done what I thought was the right thing to do.

Mr. Shinwell

It may be that just a few right hon. and hon. Gentlemen were disappointed by the statement that the Prime Minister has just made. but will he appreciate that it never was our intention—it certainly never was mine—that we should agree about a bipartisan policy on defence, but rather that we should be enabled from time to time to obtain information which occasionally, in the light of circumstances, it is not desirable that we should obtain by Question and Answer?

As an illustration, there is the course of events in the Yemen just now. Some of us feel that Questions addressed to the responsible Ministers about events in that neighbourhood might be embarassing, not necessarily to the Government—that is not our concern, as an Opposition—but rather to the troops in the field. It might, therefore, be desirable, as I suggest, from time to time to obtain information which could not be obtained across the Floor.

In view of the decision of my right hon. Friend it would obviously be unwise for me to pursue the matter, but would the Prime Minister consider again the desirability of appointing a Committee, not necessarily a Committee of secrecy but a Committee of the House, in consultation with the Minister of Defence, to go into the detailed defence Estimates before they are presented to the House? And may I ask him to appreciate that the appointment of a Committee of the House is his responsibility, and in no way that of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which has raised some very important points. I shall try to elucidate them. There are, I think, really three types of discussion which I myself think may be valuable between Opposition and Government. The first is on the general question of defence, the great plans, the broad policies. I do not think—I agree absolutely with the Leader of the Opposition—that a Committee of the kind described would be useful. I think it would really be contrary to our tradition and raise a good many difficulties. I did, however, hope that discussions of the other kind, of which three were held at the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford, might take place again. However, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has made his decision.

There are, then, occasional points which arise, such as the illustration given, on a particular difficulty or problem. I should always be ready to give any information, in my capacity, to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition or to other Privy Councillors of great experience, such as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easing-ton (Mr. Shinwell). He is a Privy Councillor of long experience in the Ministry of Defence. I assure him that I, or my right hon. Friend, would be very ready to give him what information I think it right to give in any of these matters.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister aware that, while, as he has made plain, the possibility of occasional consultation remains open, the question of whether there should be regular talks on defence between the Opposition and the Government is apt to look a little different according to whether one is sitting on the Government Front Bench or on the Opposition Front Bench?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I quite accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. All the same, there are today, in some spheres, questions which we discuss very strongly, on which strong opinions are held, and on which it is not possible for the Government to give even full information about the actual facts, in regard to which I should feel happier if I were in a position to give some of the facts to right hon. Gentlemen who carry, perhaps, their share of responsibility in our parliamentary system.

Mr. H. Morrison

Does the Prime Minister realise that some of us are a little mystified by one point in his original statement? He seemed to think that the reasons which actuated the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in bringing the inter-party discussions to a close were not unreasonable in the circumstances then, but he did not think that it was equally reasonable that my right hon. Friend should take the same view now. Could he tell us what, in his view, are the differences in circumstances between then and now which lead him to a different conclusion in the case of my right hon. Friend's decision than in the case of the decision of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford, whom we are so delighted to see sitting in his place opposite us this afternoon?

The Prime Minister

I agreed those matters with the right hon. Gentleman; I did not mean to make any decision on that. As far as I can remember, I was not, of course, one of the members of my right hon. Friend's team on that occasion. I think it arose out of a memorandum prepared by my right hon. Friend and put forward to the Government. Three meetings were held to discuss that memorandum. At the end of that, it was thought that any further discussions would, perhaps, be too restricting on both sides.

I only venture to say that this is slightly different. We have not had any meetings. I myself still think that it would have been valuable. However, I quite accept that it is a matter for the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition to decide. I felt it right, since this was discussed on both sides of the House, to make the offer and to stand by it, as I still do, and to inform the House as to the result of our discussions.

Mr. Bellenger

Although I appreciate that it would be unwise to have secret discussions between certain selected members of the Opposition Front Bench and the Government Front Bench, nevertheless the idea of a Committee of this House to consider not secret matters but matters of importance to the House which are sometimes bandied back and forth between both sides in public session is not a novel one. After all, Germany, America, and many other democratic countries have defence committees to examine officials in exactly the same way as Select Committees of this House, and their sub-committees, if they wish, are free to do in examining military matters.

Why, therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman not agree to consider the possibility of a Select Committee of the House on defence as well as, for example, on colonial matters, which, I understand, is now being considered?

Mr. Shinwell

May I put a further question to the right hon. Gentleman? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I shall not be deterred by anybody. If I think it right to put a question, I shall not be deterred by murmurs of protest, not from any side of the House, if I may say so with great respect, Mr. Speaker.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the reason advanced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) for not proceeding with the conversations, after we had had some meetings when defence matters were discussed, was that, as he said, quite rightly across the Floor, it would disarm criticism by the Opposition? But is the Prime Minister aware also that, as a result, the right hon. Member for Woodford made many statements in the House, while in opposition which were quite contrary to the facts relating to defence, and that, eventually, when he became Prime Minister and had charge of the Ministry of Defence, he confessed his ignorance of what had happened while he was in opposition? Would it not have been far better if he had been made wiser on those matters through ascertaining the facts as a result of discussion with the Government?

The Prime Minister

There are two questions there. The right hon. Gentleman will quite understand that I do not wish to pursue what had happened in the past. I am concerned with an offer I made to the present Leader of the Opposition and the reply he made to me. That offer remains open, if he should change his mind. The appointment of a Select Committee of the House is rather a different matter. I myself feel—and there I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman—that we should have to give a very great deal of thought to it before making a change of that character, because the kind of conversations which I think the House had in mind, and which I certainly had in mind, were more of the character to which the right hon. Member for Easington referred, rather informal, private and secret conversations with the idea of clearing up questions of fact rather than arguing questions of principle. However, there the matter stands.

As regards a Committee, I think that I must rest on the decision now reached. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, in that I see no reason at present for deciding upon the appointment of such a Committee.

Mr. Harold Daviesrose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must take the decision as made.

Mr. Davies

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Until this moment, only the opinion of Privy Councillors has been heard, with one exception, on this vital problem. As an ordinary Member of the House, I feel that some of the back benchers are, at least, entitled to be heard on the subject.

Mr. Speaker

There is no Question before the House for discussion. If it were a debate, I should try to do my best to call hon. Members on the back benches. But there is no question of a debate on this matter at the moment.