HC Deb 13 July 1961 vol 644 cc581-3
40. Mr. Cronin

asked the Prime Minister if, having regard to the desirability of all Government Departments being always under the control of a Minister responsible to Parliament, he will arrange 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)

It is a long-established practice that, on the rare occasions when the First Lord is absent from formal Board meetings, the chair is usually taken by the First Sea Lord. But, of course, so far as Ministerial responsibility for control over the Department's activities is concerned, no action requiring Ministerial approval would be taken without the authority of the First Lord or the Civil Lord or other appropriate Minister.

Mr. Cronin

Although this custom may be hallowed by ancient usage, is it not a most undesirable constitutional anomaly that a member of the Armed Forces should preside over a Department's affairs when the Minister responsible to this House is available?

The Prime Minister

This is a very old custom, and I think that, among all the many problems with which we are confronted in this country, this is not one of the greatest.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Prime Minister aware that the way in which some of us managed to get round the difficulty was to avoid having a meeting of the Board when the First Lord was away? In cases like this, is it not a fact that the Under-Secretary of State for War presides over the Army Council and that the Under-Secretary of State for Air presides over the Air Council? Why should there be a difference in this case?

The Prime Minister

It goes back to the fan that the Board is a Board of Commissioners to carry out the functions of the Lord High Admiral.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is it not the case that in every other Government Department the Parliamentary Secretary or the Under-Secretary of State is in charge when the Minister is away? Can the Prime Minister make it clear whether the Civil Lord of the Admiralty is in charge of the Admiralty in the absence of the First Lord or whether the First Sea Lord is in charge of the Admiralty?

The Prime Minister

He is Ministerially in charge and he has full Ministerial responsibility should the First Lord be ill or away, but the First Sea Lord, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, has certain special functions. I do not think that the matter of who presides over the Board on the rather rare occasions when the First Lord is away is of great importance.

Mr. G. Brown

Will the Prime Minister reconsider this? Is he not aware that those of us who have Ministerial experience as an Under-Secretary know very well that the business of the Under-Secretary establishing himself over the civil servants, and, in this case, the military servants, is a very difficult one if all the trappings of the office are denied to him? Will the Prime Minister therefore reconsider this matter in order to establish firm political control in a Department where recent history has shown this to be one of the contributory factors to a notable breakdown in administration?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that whether the First Lord or somebody else presides over a particular meeting is of great importance. This is a very old tradition. This Board is unlike any of those other bodies because it is a Board of Commissioners to carry out the office. I will, however, look into the matter if there is any strong feeling about it. I have great sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about Under-Secretaries. At one time, I tried to form a trade union of Under-Secretaries.

Mr. Shinwell

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Board of Admiralty discusses political matters which have a bearing on our activities in this House? If the right hon. Gentleman accepts the principle of political control in a Department of this character, how does he seek to justify the First Sea Lord occupying the primary position over the Board of Admiralty when, presumably, it is discussing political matters?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps it would not discuss political matters on that occasion. This is a mere formality. It has gone on for about 300 years. I do not think that any hon. or right hon. Gentleman opposite showed any marked distaste for it when the party opposite was in power.

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