HC Deb 01 August 1961 vol 645 cc1140-1
Q1. Mr. Cronin

asked the Prime Minister what further consideration he has given to arranging for the Civil Lord to preside over the Board of Admiralty, instead of one of the Sea Lords, in the absence of the First Lord.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I have looked at this matter again. I am satisfied that any objections that might be raised to the existing arrangements are theoretical and are not relevant to the way in which the business of the Board of Admiralty is in fact conducted.

Mr. Cronin

Can the Prime Minister give one good reason why an admiral should take precedence over a Minister responsible to this House for the conduct of the affairs of his own Ministry?

The Prime Minister

Formal meetings of the Board as a whole are held only periodically. Since my noble Friend assumed office there have been no Board meetings held in his absence. The order of names follows that of the Board Patent. I do not think that this can be a very serious grievance because, anyway, hon. Members have waited ten years to raise it.

Mr. Gaitskell

If the Prime Minister is suggesting that the Board of Admiralty is going to suffer the same fate as the Board of Trade and will never meet at all, then my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) will not mind very much. What we are concerned about is the principle of Ministerial responsibility. May I ask the Prime Minister if he will say whether or not, in the absence of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Civil Lord is responsible for what is done by the Admiralty?

The Prime Minister

Of course he has the full Ministerial responsibility should the First Lord be absent.

Mr. Gaitskell

Why should the Prime Minister use the phrase "Ministerial responsibility" if, as I gather from what he said on the last occasion, this is in some way limited in his mind? Will the Prime Minister clear up this point? Is it not the case that a Minister is responsible for everything that happens in the Admiralty, as in other Departments?

The Prime Minister

And the First Lord is responsible. Should he happen to be absent, at a formal meeting this follows the tradition that the First Sea Lord takes the chair. But, of course, political decisions and full responsibility rests with the First Lord, and if he were absent and not able to be consulted—which is very unlikely—the final decision would rest with the Civil Lord.

Mr. Shinwell

Why should the Prime Minister be so diffident about this? After all, is he not aware that the Army Council is always presided over by a Minister, as is the Air Council? Why should there be a difference at the Admiralty?

The Prime Minister

It is, of course, a purely historical difference. The Army Council and the Air Council were set up by Parliament. The Board of Admiralty is a set of gentlemen whose duty it is to carry out the functions of the Lord High Admiral.