HC Deb 13 July 1960 vol 626 cc1396-402

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

61. Mr. WYATT

To ask the Minister of Defence whether he will make a statement about the availability of the Blue Steel flying bomb, amplifying his letter to the honourable Member for Bosworth on the matter.

The Minister of Defence (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

With permission, Sir, I will now answer Question No. 61.

Last Wednesday, on a point of order, the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Wyatt) maintained his contention that the House had been misled with regard to Blue Steel. The facts are these:

On 25th May, the hon. Gentleman said of Blue Steel: we now know that it will not be ready for five years".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th May. 1960; Vol. 624, c. 417.] On 22nd June in a supplementary to me, he again said that the House had been misled as to the availability of this weapon. After our exchanges on that occasion, I felt that I could give more information to avoid any further misunderstanding of the position.

I thought that it would be courteous to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity of pursuing the matter himself, so I invited him to put a further Question down, warning him in my letter that he was likely to get only a Written Answer as I would not be reached for some time.

Following the fuller Answer which I gave on Blue Steel last Wednesday, I hope that the hon. Member will now accept that his fears about this weapon not being available until the mid-sixties are unjustified, and that what I have tried to do is not to mislead the House but to correct any possible ambiguity in previous statements on this most important weapon system.

Mr. Wyatt

Is not the Minister aware that he is still trying to mislead the House in the very statement that he has just made? On 27th April, in the debate on Blue Streak, he referred to Blue Steel as the bomb now being fitted".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th April, 1960; Vol. 622, c. 242.] to the V -bomber. Those were his words on 27th April.

When I challenged him on this and asked other Ministers Questions about it, I was continually fobbed off. When, finally, I put this Question to the Minister of Defence on 22nd June himself he said that his statement of 27th April was true, that the bomb was now being fitted. Afterwards, he asked me to put down the Question which I did on 6th July, and, in a Written Answer on that day to an hon. Friend of his, he referred to Mark II V-bombers being fitted to carry the Blue Steel bomb, which is a very different thing from the Blue Steel bomb being fitted to the bomber. It is totally different. He then went on to say: The bomb itself is not yet in service, but its development is going well and launching trials are now taking place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1960; Vol. 626, c. 42.] The right hon. Gentleman is still misleading the House by pretending that on 27th April he gave accurate information when referring to the Blue Steel bomb as "the bomb now being fitted" to the V-bomber, when it was not.

Is it not deplorable that the Minister of Defence, on such a serious matter as the Blue Streak debate, should offer as one of the arguments for cancelling the Blue Streak project that a flying bomb, Blue Steel, was now being fitted to the V-bombers when it was not, and to persist in pretending that it was, subsequent to that date; and only after a number of Questions by myself, admitting in a Written Answer, in a hole-and-corner way, that it was not being fitted at all, but that the aeroplane was simply being fitted to carry it when the bomb was ready? Is it not a terrible indictment of the Government's defence policy that they do not even know what weapons they have in service, and the Prime Minister—

Mr. Langford-Holt

On a point of order. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to make such a lengthy statement in reply to an Answer?

Mr. Speaker

What is in order is for the hon. Gentleman to ask a supplementary question, arising from the Answer given by the Minister. It is getting very long, and I hope that hon. Gentleman is getting near to the end of it.

Mr. Wyatt

May I ask this final question? Will the Minister not now be honest enough to admit that he did mislead the House on 27th April, and will not he have the courage to admit his mistake? The House will be ready to forgive him.

Mr. Watkinson

I do not mind the length of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. I am as interested as he is—and accept his interest in this matter—in trying to get at the facts about this most important weapon. The position today is this. Development rounds are being produced on a production line. We are at the stage of proving the weapon by launching it from V-bombers. I want to make it plain, so that there is no possible further misunderstanding, that at the moment they are Mark I V-bombers. Does the hon. Gentleman mean that the Mark II V-bombers will not be ready for years, or the bomb?

Mr. Wyatt

Blue Steel.

Mr. Watkinson

I am glad the hon. Gentleman said that, because this is the difference between us.

The hon. Gentleman, as I said in my original Answer, has always contended that this weapon would not be available until, to put the most favourable construction on what he has often said, the mid-sixties. What I am saying, and what I said in my answer in the House, is that it will give several years of useful service before Skybolt is available, which makes it plain that the bomb is at a much more advanced stage of development than the hon. Gentleman has been contending.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the issue here is not the merits of the bomb? This is a forgiving House. Any of us who have ever been Ministers, and who have been in exactly this difficulty, know that if one comes here and says that one was wrong, on the whole the House will always take it.

The issue here is that on 27th April the Minister, talking of the Blue Steel flying bomb, used the words: that is to say, the bomb now being fitted… On 22nd June, a good deal later, after the persistence of my hon. Friend, the Minister said: The answer is that I said in the defence debate that the Mark II V-bombers now coming into service were being fitted with Blue Steel flying bombs, and that is a true statement—".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd June, 1960; Vol. 625, c. 406.] On 23rd June, the Minister wrote a letter to my hon. Friend in which he said: …I said something about Blue Steel which, now I come to read it in cold print, I realise does not clear up the matter as I would wish. The right hon. Gentleman then subsequently said that it was the bombers that were being fitted to take the bomb and not the bomb that was being fitted to the bombers. That is a very different matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If I said that my garage was being fitted to take a Rolls-Royce, that would be very different from saying that my Rolls-Royce was going into my garage. In any event, I have not got a Rolls-Royce, but I have got a garage. That makes a lot of difference.

I put it to the Minister that if he just now accepted that what he said on 27th April was not so, and that what he said two or three months later is the position, that would clear it up as far as we are concerned, and the whole country would then know that what we have are bombers and what we do not have are the bombs. That is quite different from the impression that he gave. Ought he not simply to say, "I am sorry; I put it the wrong way round in the first place. The issue is as I have now described it"?

Mr. Watkinson

I would say that with pleasure if I felt that it was so.

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman has just said so.

Mr. Watkinson

I think that I had better read the whole of the letter which I wrote to the hon. Member for Bosworth. I think that is only fair. The letter said: In the heat of the exchanges in the House yesterday following Chetwynd's Question on Skybolt, I said something about Blue Steel which, now I come to read it in cold print, I realise does not clear up the matter as I would wish. I quite agree. As I have no wish to obscure the truth about Blue Steel, I think it might be useful to us both if you were to ask a further Question about this weapon. This would enable me to put on the record for you and the House the full story of the present position. This will probably have to be a Written Answer, as I am not likely to be reached for some time to come. The present position about this weapon, as I have said, is that development rounds are being produced on a production line. These bombs are being launched in the current programme from Mark I V-bombers in the course of proving them as an operational weapon, and, therefore, while I accept that this will help the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, there may be some ambiguity.

I have made four statements on the bomb and I have got them written here. There may be some ambiguity; if so, I am glad of this chance to clear it up. But the ambiguity does not go nearly as far as the hon. Gentleman in making these constant allegations that I am trying to mislead the House. What I am trying to do is to make sure that the House has no doubts about the present position.

Mr. Brown

I really want to help the right hon. Gentleman, because I understand how these things arise. It has happened to me in the past. Will he just say that when he said "the bomb now being fitted to the bombers" he had it wrong and he meant, "the bombers which will come off the line which will be fitted to take the bomb"? Is that what he really meant?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not want to prolong the argument, but I am very happy to answer. Technically, the bomb has been fitted to some bombers, the Mark I, and they are the bombers which are proving it now.

Mr. Brown

In service?

Mr. Watkinson

No, certainly not; I quite agree. They are being equipped. They are being fitted. They were being fitted and they are now being flitted. I thought, on reading those Answers, that one could take it both ways. I would only say to the House that my view was that this merely expressed the difference between the hon. Gentleman and me, his contention being that it is five years away, my contention being that it is proceeding according to plan. I have said that, if there is any ambiguity in this, I am very happy to have this opportunity to correct it.

Mr. Brown

Will the right hon. Gentleman now clear the matter up—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".]—and put it all to sleep? Hon. Members opposite should remember that the Minister once changed HANSARD, so we watch him a little more carefully than the others. We had as much trouble getting that out of him as we are having in getting this out of him now.

To put it right now, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether there will be bombers in service to which the Blue Steel bomb has been fitted?

Mr. Watkinson

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman knows quite clearly, from his long experience in these matters, that that is the kind of information one does not give. I have no intention of giving it. What I have said, which again entirely disproves the allegations of the hon. Member for Bosworth, is that this weapon will give several years of useful service before Skybolt is available. That is as far as I think it proper to go in giving the House information.

I would only comment that, if I have sinned at all, it appears that I have sinned in trying to be too helpful to the hon. Member for Bosworth.

Mr. Wigg

May I try to help the right hon. Gentleman in his problem of security? Are there not, in fact, three Blue Steel bombs in name, the Blue Steel Mark I with a very limited range, the Blue Steel Mark II, which was subsequently cancelled, and then Blue Steel Mark IA, which has now been experimented with? Is it not a fact that the Government's proposals, cooked up, if may use that word, following the cancellation of Blue Streak, were that Blue Steel was to be fitted to a V-bomber, but the V-bomber to which it was to be fitted was the Mark II Vulcan, which is not yet in service?

What the right hon. Gentleman was really trying to do, in fact, was to dodge the horns of the dilemma, confusing the House following the cancellation of Blue Streak and, at the same time, not revealing, for security reasons, that my right hon. Friend was slightly wrong in saying that we might have one but not the other, because the truth is that we have not got either.

Mr. Brown

I am happy to accept that correction from my hon. Friend absolutely and completely.

Mr. Watkinson

I think that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) really did try to be helpful, if I may say so, because he has made plain how confusing the various allegations, claims, and so forth, have made this issue. I have today and in my Answer last week tried to make it quite plain. The position is now quite plain.

Mr. Brown

We have neither.

Mr. Watkinson

Neither what?

Mr. Brown

Neither the bomb nor the bomber.

Mr. Watkinson

Nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman can have his fun, but what I have to be concerned about is to establish the position of a weapon which is a very important part of our means of delivery of the nuclear deterrent. What I have said quite clearly is—I will say it again, in case there is any ambiguity—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That means, then, that hon. Members are quite satisfied with the position.