HC Deb 15 July 1958 vol 591 cc1010-3
The Prime Minister

With permission I will now answer Questions Nos. 46, 52 and 60 together.

When the present Government was formed my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence was entrusted with the task of reshaping and reorganising the Armed Forces in accordance with current strategic needs and in the light of the economic capacity of the country. For this purpose I redefined the Minister's functions in relation to the Service Departments and the Ministry of Supply, and gave him increased authority to take decisions on matters of general defence policy affecting the size, shape, organisation, and equipment of the Armed Forces. I announced this to the House on 24th January, 1957.

These arrangements have now been in operation for eighteen months. As a result of a recent careful review the Government have concluded that they have been justified by practical experience, and that, subject to certain minor alterations, they should now be formally confirmed.

In addition, three new features are being introduced. First, the composition and operation of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet is being adjusted in order to secure greater flexibility and efficiency. Secondly, a Defence Board is being set up to assist the Minister of Defence in formulating defence policy and for dealing with inter-Service problems. Thirdly, certain adjustments are being made in the Staff organisation, including the assumption by the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee of the title of Chief of the Defence Staff.

The Queen has been graciously pleased to approve that Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson be appointed to this new office.

For the convenience of the House I have set out in a White Paper an outline of the working of the organisation as adjusted by the changes which I have mentioned. Copies of this White Paper will be available this afternoon.

Mr. G. Brown

The Prime Minister's statement seems to raise as many new and quite serious questions as it begs most of the existing ones. However, I have a feeling that the attention of the House this afternoon is engaged upon rather more urgent, if not more important, questions than this, and I feel that on the whole it would be better if I deferred questions upon this matter until a later stage. I would ask the Prime Minister, however, whether he can give us an assurance that the Government will facilitate a debate on this and other relevant defence issues before we rise at the end of the month. Perhaps he will add to what is in his statement, which clearly shows that the mutiny which has been going on on the Treasury Bench has been quelled at last, and tell us in whose favour it has been ended.

The Prime Minister

With regard to a debate, perhaps arrangements could be made through the usual channels if such a debate is required.

Sir J. Smyth

Does my right hon. Friend realise that any proposals that he may make for reorganisation in this respect which will preserve the individuality, self-expression and high morale of the three Services and, at the same time, make for higher co-ordination at the centre, will receive a very wide measure of approval?

The Prime Minister


Mr. Shinwell

Can the Prime Minister state whether this scheme in any way affects the status of the three Service Ministers? Do they remain as they are, with full charge of the administration of their respective Departments? Can he also say what is the actual difference between the proposed Defence Board and the present Defence Committee, which has been in operation for several years?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, the responsibility to Parliament of the Service Ministers and the Minister of Supply for the efficient administration of the Armed Forces and their supply remains unchanged. With regard to the White Paper, on the whole it might be mote convenient if hon. and right hon. Members had an opportunity of reading it. We could then debate it, if it is so wished, with perhaps more success than I could achieve in trying to answer detailed questions, out of proportion, in connection with the White Paper as a whole.

Mr. Shinwell

Does that mean that the Government have not come to a final determination on this matter, but that they will collect the voices and hear what hon. Members have to say before coming to a definite decision?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. It means that I think that a debate, or even a series of supplementary questions, could be more effectively carried on if hon. and right hon. Gentlemen had read the White Paper.

Mr. Gaitskell

I agree with the Prime Minister that any detailed questions should be deferred until we have read the White Paper, but can he say whether the changes in the Defence Committee are explained in the White Paper?

The Prime Minister

An indication is given of them, and if any further indication is needed I shall do my best to explain it, should the matter be debated.

Mr. Bellenger

On the point raised by my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister will know that this is one of the matters about which the House is not given much information, because the Committee concerned is a Committee of the Cabinet. Can the Prime Minister say whether, either in the White Paper or at a future date, he will be more forthcoming as to the duties and composition of that Committee?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman knows that it is not the practice to give accounts of the working of Cabinets or Cabinet Committees. An exception has been made in this case. There is a precedent for it in the White Paper of 1946, which set out both the composition and function of the Defence Committee. I have therefore thought it right to set them out again, together with any changes which are proposed. The right hon. Gentleman will find them set out in fair detail in the White Paper, and if further elucidation is required I think it could best be provided in a debate.