HC Deb 28 May 1962 vol 660 cc978-86
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Harold Watkinson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement on the events of last Thursday.

The speakers in this debate were arranged through the usual channels, the agreed subject was foreign affairs, and the Minister of State was brought back specially from Geneva to wind up. I am sure that this was right.

At a chance meeting with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) on Wednesday evening, I told him that I was not taking part in the debate. My recollection is that he said that he might say something about me in his speech, but that he might not get to me, as he would have to spend a lot of time on South-East Asia.

I said that I would be present, if I could, to hear him, but I hoped that he would acquit me of any discourtesy if I was not. In the event, owing to the changed time of the debate, I was prevented from being present by an official engagement. I received no notification from him, or from anyone else, that the accuracy of my statements to the House about my Press conference was to be challenged.

As to these allegations, I would only add this. I am not prepared to disclose the detailed record of a conference which gave background briefing to the Press on a non-attributable or off-the-record basis. This would set a completely new precedent, and would not be fair to the correspondents who took part.

The summary of what I said, circulated in HANSARD on 16th May, was a complete answer to the allegations that I gave information regarding an increase in the strength of B.A.O.R. which I had failed to give this House. As the summary made plain, I did not at the conference give any date for raising B.A.O.R. to 55,000 men, or any estimate of the cost of new strategy.

Figures of 64,000 and 75,000 are examples of the kind of proposals for the strength of B.A.O.R. that may arise in the course of the triennial review. I have made it perfectly plain on several occasions, including this Press conference, that it is anybody's guess whether they will be accepted by N.A.T.O. and that Britain's position is that we are not prepared to go beyond the fulfilment of our Treaty obligation of 55,000. In fact, Mr. Speaker, the position remains as I reported to the House on 16th May.

In these circumstances, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now withdraw his allegation.

Mr. G. Brown

Is the Minister aware that the accuracy of his statements to the House were challenged the week before this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and myself, among others? Will he answer me this: did the Leader of the House inform him that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, at the time of business questions the week before, had said that the Athens Conference and his part in it would be a major part of that debate?

Did the Patronage Secretary inform him that the Opposition Chief Whip had asked for him not only to be present, but to answer the debate? He has already said he had a recent meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson).

Did the right hon. Gentleman's duty clerk at the Ministry tell him the night before that I had taken the trouble to ring up and to say that if the right hon. Gentleman did not come he would be under attack and that there would be some considerable anger if he were not here? If these things happened, why did he still stay away?

Mr. Watkinson

The right hon. Gentleman was certainly kind enough to ring up my resident clerk to give me a message. It was not exactly in those terms, I understand. I understood that it was in the terms that it would be in my own interests—I think he said—to wind up the debate, and that he wished me to do so. That is perfectly clear.

I understand that representations were also made through the usual channels. Well, there is a Question down to the Prime Minister tomorrow. All I would say is that I certainly take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said, but who speaks in a debate is not a decision for an individual Minister; it is a decision for the Government, to be settled through the usual channels. The Government decided the speakers on this particular subject, and, as I said, I think that the Government were right.

Mr. H. Wilson

It is not a question of who winds up, but whether the right hon. Gentleman came at all when he had clear notice that he should come. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the middle of the debate, in the middle of my speech, I personally pressed the Lord Privy Seal to see that the Minister of Defence was brought here as I was about to come to this question?

Further, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my own recollection of our chance meeting, as he calls it, is entirely different? Is he aware that what I said to him was that I was intending to refer to him and that he said he might be late owing to another engagement, and I said that as I had to deal with South-East Asia, perhaps I would not get to him till later?

As the debate was late in starting we thought that that would give him a better chance to get here, not a worse. Since it is now becoming clear that he was spending part of the time at a meeting of back bench Government supporters instead of being in the House that afternoon—is it denied? it was in the Press—would he now say whether he agrees that a Minister's first duty is to the House of Commons when his official conduct is being raised? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recall the tremendous row there was when the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) attacked Sir Stafford Cripps on the question of the Anglo-American Productivity Council, and insisted on Sir Stafford coming to the House?

As for the issue of the tape recording, is the Minister aware that he has not answered any of the points I made either about the briefing put out by the Ministry of Defence to British defence correspondents before the Athens Conference—which turned out to be quite false—or about the other issues referred to at some length in our debate last Thursday? Since the right hon. Gentleman has stated that he said nothing at the Press conference which he had not stated in the House, why not do what we suggest and place a transcript in the Library so that the House may judge?

Mr. Watkinson

I will try to deal with as many of those supplementary questions as I can. First, there is the question of what the right hon. Gentleman and I said to each other at what was a purely chance meeting outside the door of the Members' snack bar. My recollection is exactly as I set it out in my statement. I agree that the right hon. Gentleman said he would probably not get to me until later in his speech, but I also informed him that during the earlier part of the afternoon I had a committee meeting upstairs. That is perfectly true.

On the other hand, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, his speech, through no fault of his own, started over an hour late, and at the relevant moment, when my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal could not get hold of me—as no doubt he would have done otherwise—I was attending a meeting with the Canadian Defence War College, now visiting this country. It was my only chance to do so. That was my engagement.

Mr. G. Brown: When?

Mr. Watkinson

At the moment that the right hon. Member for Huyton was referring to me in the House.

I now come to the broader issue, which is a very important one. Had the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Huyton given me the correct form of notice—to which I think I am entitled—that he was proposing to attack me personally in the debate, I should have been present. That is the normal custom of this House. Indeed, I took the trouble to telephone the right hon. Member this morning so that he would know without doubt what I was going to say today. I do not think that he made his intention as plain as that to me—

Mr. H. Wilson

Yes, I did.

Mr. Watkinson

Certainly not. The right hon. Member did not make it as plain as that to me that he would make a personal attack on me on that occasion.

I now come to the right hon. Gentleman's last point. The whole purpose of the Press conference, as I stated in answer to a Question in the House, was to try to correct misapprehensions in the Press arising from what quarter I know not where. There were stories of division of view between the United States Secretary of State and myself. He and I held a meeting before we went to the Athens Conference, and at that meeting we found that we were in broad general agreement with each other on N.A.T.O. strategy as a whole.

As I also said in answer to Questions, it is part of my duty as Minister of Defence to do all I can to put right misconceptions that might threaten the strength of the N.A.T.O. Alliance. That is the reason why I held a Press conference. I said nothing at that conference that I had not already told this House.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that a transcript should be put in the Library. I know, and he knows, that it is the tradition of this House that right hon. or hon. Members who say things to Press correspondents on an agreed basis do not break the bargain afterwards. I do not propose to start doing so now.

Mr. Wigg

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is aware that what he is stating is not true. In the House, in answer to a Question of mine, he made no reference whatever to the undertaking to raise the strength of Rhine Army to 55,000. He knew perfectly well that I was not interested in the political aspects of the problem, but in the military aspects.

In the circular, sent out in his name to defence correspondents, it was stated specifically that he would deal with the military aspects. In the House he made no reference to 55,000 troops, or to 64,000, or to 75,000. Nor did he tell us how he intended to meet these obligations.

Mr. Watkinson

As I said when the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) challenged me before, he is not correct. I ask him to look again at column 437 of HANSARD of 9th May last. That was before I saw the defence correspondents. I refused to see any defence correspondents, or allow any briefing of them to be done, before I had been to the House. That is the correct thing to do. If the hon. Gentleman looks at that passage in HANSARD, he will see that, in answer to a supplementary question put by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), I agreed that he was correct in his assumption that I had stated in Athens that this country would carry out its Treaty commitments, whatever they might be.

Mr. G. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) that had he been told that he was to be attacked in the debate would have been present. Is the Minister being honest with the House? Did not my right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip tell the Patronage Secretary that the reason we thought that the Minister of Defence ought to answer the debate was because his conduct was to be attacked? Did I not go to the trouble of telephoning his Ministry at six o'clock—when the only person I could find was a duty clerk? Did I not tell that clerk that the Minister would be attacked and that was why I thought he should be present at the debate? Yet the Minister still stayed away the whole day.

The right hon. Gentleman says that he was with the Canadian Minister of Defence. For how long? I agree that his meeting with the Canadian Minister was important, but was he with him the whole day? Did not the right hon. Gentleman treat the House with absolute contempt?

Mr. Watkinson

I have nothing to add to what I have said. I recéived no notification from the right hon. Member for Huyton or from anyone else that the accuracy of my statements to the House on the Press conference was to be challenged.

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman is lying.

Hon. Members: Order, order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Brown

I will withdraw the word "lying", Mr. Speaker. But I know what I told the duty clerk and I do not suspect the duty clerk of not having conveyed it to the Minister.

Mr. Watkinson

I had from the duty clerk a report of what the right hon. Gentleman had said.

Mr. Speaker

Viscount Hinchingbrooke.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should not the apology of the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) be quite unreserved?

Mr. Speaker

All this illustrates the difficulty of trying to debate things without there being a Question before the House. I did call the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke).

Viscount Hinchingbrooke

Is not my right hon. Friend the Minister of Defence a servant of this House as a whole? Is he to be put at the beck and call of a little caucus of right hon. Gentlemen opposite who are not even followed by large sections of their party? Are there not many quarters in this House—including the Liberal Party and many of my hon. Friends—who are entirely satisfied with my right hon. Friend's statements to us at various times? Is this a matter fox lengthy discussion and debate at Question Time?

Mr. Speaker

I have already indicated that all matters are difficult to discuss when there is no Question before the House. What I am supposed to do, and am allowed to do by the ordinary practice of the House, is to allow some questions on a statement. We are now rapidly nearing the end of the time when I can allow them.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is it not a fact that all this trouble would have been avoided had the right hon. Gentleman done the right thing by the House, of which the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) says he is a servant? Does not the Minister accept that his first duty is to this House, however important the Canadian War College may be—and I agree that it is important? But does he expect us to believe that from five o'clock in the afternoon until ten o'clock in the evening he was unable to attend the debate even for a few minutes in order to be told what had been said, and at least to attempt some answer, even if he did not wind up?

Did not the right hon. Gentleman mislead the House in one of his answers today?

Mr. G. Brown

In many of them.

Mr. Wilson

It was a fresh misleading answer.

The Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) that he refused to meet the defence correspondents on his return from Athens until he had reported to the House. How, then, does he explain the fact that notices to the correspondents referred to a meeting—which he had already fixed—at London Airport?

Mr. Watkinson: No.

Mr. Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman says No", but it is a fact. Was not the only reason that he cancelled that meeting at the airport that his plane was late and that he missed the correspondents? Will he not add to the difficulties already created by making these misstatements?

Mr. Watkinson

The answer to the second part of that supplementary question, as the right hon. Member for Huyton knows, having been a senior Minister himself, is that all Ministers have to go through a Press conference procedure when they arrive at an airport anyway, and one then says—[HON. MEMBERS: "The Press was told."] The Press is always told when a Minister is arriving at an airport, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. But Ministers then say only what is proper before they meet the House of Commons.

The point I was making was that on the Monday the Ministry of Defence was deluged with inquiries because of a great deal of misconception about what had happened at the Athens Conference. I believe that I behaved in a correct and proper and courteous manner to the House in refusing to have any briefing done until I had submitted myself to the House on the Wednesday, when I was second on the list of Questions.

There was no limitation on the number of Questions which were asked and I think that hon. Members will do me the courtesy of agreeing that I answered every Question as fully as I could. It was only after I had done all that that I gave the background briefing to the correspondents in which I said nothing which I had not already said to the House.

As the right hon. Gentleman's first question—[Interruption.] All I want to do is to put my case on the record. I think that I am entitled to do that. If the right hon. Member for Belper wishes to debate this matter, I shall be delighted to debate it with him. I am the servant of the House and very honoured so to be. If the right hon. Gentleman had made it plain to me that he was going to make a persistent personal attack on me, I should have been present.

Mr. G. Brown: I did.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Dance

On a point of order. Would it not be correct, Sir, for us to get on with the debate on London Airports?

Mr. Speaker

That is just what I was trying to do when the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) rose to a point of order. We cannot debate this subject without a Question before the House.

Mr. Pagetrose

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. and learned Member is rising to a point of order, I will hear him, but, if not, I think that we should get on.

Mr. Paget

I have been rising throughout on a point of great importance in this matter, Sir. I am not pretending for a moment that it is a point of order. I do not raise bogus points of order. I ask your permission, Mr. Speaker, to put a further question, which seems to me to be very important.

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry, but there has to be a limit in these matters and I, like others, am the servant of the House and have to judge when the moment is come.

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