HC Deb 28 March 1968 vol 761 cc1725-31

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister, if he will make a statement on the proposed amalgamation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices.

The Prime Minister

As the House will be aware, I have asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to supervise the amalgamation of the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office into a single Office for which, when it has been established, he will become responsible. The House will wish to know more about the background to this decision.

The House will recall that the Plowden Committee on Representational Services Overseas questioned, amongst other things, the desirability of continuing to have two separate Offices responsible for relations with Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries. When the Committee reported in December 1963 they considered the moment had not yet come when a merger between the Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Office would be opportune; but they concluded nevertheless that the logic of events pointed towards an ultimate amalgamation.

Since the Committee reported, the Foreign and Commonwealth Services have been united in a single Diplomatic Service. The communications systems and the infrastructure generally have been amalgamated, several joint Departments have been established and there has thus already been a very considerable degree of integration. The time has now come to take the final short and logical step. I hope that it will be possible to put the amalgamation into practical effect by the autumn. One member of the Cabinet, the Secretary of State in charge of the combined Office, will then be responsible for the conduct of both foreign and Commonwealth affairs. The organisation is now being worked out; it will be largely on a geographical basis but with strong functional departments in support. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to bear in mind the importance of making satisfactory arrangements to ensure that the interests of the Dependent Territories will continue to receive close and sympathetic attention.

The amalgamation of the two Offices implies no change in our attitude or approach to the Commonwealth connection. In the new Office the responsible Ministers will attach fully as much weight to the views of other Commonwealth Governments as they have always done. In particular I should like to emphasise that Commonwealth High Commissioners in London will continue to have ready access to me and to other British Ministers and their Departments in exactly the same way as at present.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be general support for telescoping these Departments—and perhaps it might be useful to telescope other Departments to reduce some of the Ministers? Nevertheless, will there not be an impression as a result of the decision to merge the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office that we will not be so much concerned with our Commonwealth associations and obligations in future? Can my right hon. Friend say which Minister will be responsible for answering questions primarily on the Commonwealth when the merger takes place?

The Prime Minister

Concerning the anxiety of my right hon. Friend about paying less attention to Commonwealth countries and specifically Commonwealth matters in future, I tried to deal with that in my original Answer. My right hon. Friend will be aware that no other Commonwealth Government now has one department dealing just with Commonwealth relations. A number of Commonwealth Governments in the past, when I have discussed it with them, have felt that it was inevitable we should make this change and, I think, were ready to welcome it.

Concerning the second part of my right hon. Friend's question, there will be one Secretary of State for the combined Department. What its name will be I am not yet in a position to say. I shall be interested to hear the views of right hon. and hon. Members, but it will not be the Department of External Affairs or anything like that. There will be one Secretary of State and he, together with his junior Ministers, will answer Questions of a specifically Commonwealth character as well as questions about foreign countries.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that this is a step of major importance in the organisation of the machinery of Government, and we shall want to consider the details of the proposals which will presumably be put before the House? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he visualises that this will mean a considerable increase in the burden on the Prime Minister in carrying on communications and contacts with the Prime Ministers of Commonwealth Governments, replacing to a considerable extent what was formerly done by the Commonwealth Secretary?

The Prime Minister

I agree that this is a major step forward both for overseas relationships and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, in the machinery of Government. I noted last week the desire expressed by him, as well as by MN right hon. Friend, that a statement should be made to the House. This has been done.

As to communications with Heads of Government within the Commonwealth, as he said, this is frequently done by the Commonwealth Secretary. In the future this will be the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary, who will be in charge of the combined Department, under whatever title he then has. Clearly, as now, there are many occasions when I have to communicate with Heads of Government, foreign or Commonwealth, and this will continue.

Mr. George Brown

Will my right hon. Friend make it quite plain that this is no new decision? In fact, the present Commonwealth Secretary and myself made a recommendation to him some time ago to speed up the decision already made to combine the two Departments in terms of Ministers. Will my right hon. Friend also make it clear that the services are already combined? Therefore, the anxieties of my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) do not arise. The reason for doing it is clearly to avoid having Ministerial arguments and, therefore, encouraging civil servants to encourage Ministerial arguments. It is obviously the most sensible thing to do and the sooner we do it the better.

The Prime Minister

I cannot recall any case of disharmony or argument between my right hon. Friend and the Commonwealth Secretary, so with that part of his question I cannot express agreement. I am in full agreement with the rest of the points made in his question. This was originally a projected recommendation of the Plowden Committee. It has been considered by all Governments and all Prime Ministers since that time. I can certainly confirm that I discussed this with my right hon. Friend only a few weeks ago, and I know that this is his view. Obviously it will have very great advantages both in Whitehall and in our relationships with overseas countries.

Mr. Maudling

Is the Prime Minister aware that there may from time to time be a conflict between the claims of foreign policy and the claims of our policy towards dependent territories? Examples of such a possibility have been the position as regards Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Is it satisfactory that in future these disputes will be resolved at Departmental level rather than be resolved at Cabinet level with full representation of both points of view?

The Prime Minister

The question of which matters ought to go to the Cabinet or important Cabinet committees does not depend on whether there is one Department or two involved. There are many questions, as the right hon. Gentleman will remember from his experience, which require Cabinet approval even though they may come forward on the initiative of a single Department. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned one or two cases where a different point of view might arise as between Commonwealth and Foreign Affairs interests. The problems last year over Hong Kong were a similar case in point. The subject which we debated yesterday, as I tried to explain to the House, is one on which there is great world interest quite apart from our dependent territory interest as regards Rhodesia.

It will be much better when a single Minister is able to assemble all the issues for decision and, where necessary, consult his colleagues.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has long been an opinion among students of foreign affairs that the Foreign Minister does not run the Foreign Office but the Foreign Office runs the Minister? Is it not time to correct this situation by having a Specialist Committee on foreign affairs which would give the House a greater opportunity to watch matters?

The Prime Minister

In the suspicion which he has voiced, my hon. Friend, most unusually for him, is living in the long distant past.

Mr. Fisher

Has the Prime Minister fully considered the enormous burden of work which will fall on one man? Both these jobs have been full-time jobs in the past. Second, will he recommend to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that there should continue to be two separate days allotted for Parliamentary Questions, as otherwise hon. Members will not be able to put down the questions they want to the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office?

The Prime Minister

First, the matter of Parliamentary Questions. I think that it will be for the convenience of the House that, until the amalgamation is complete, during which time we shall in any case have two Secretaries of State responsible for the two areas, Questions should continue as at present. After the amalgamation, it will, I think, be for the greater convenience of the House if they are amalgamated. It is often difficult to know exactly which Department should take Questions in certain cases. As to the number of days, this is a matter for discussion with my right hon. Friend.

I agree that the burden falling on the Secretary of State will be considerable. We are here continuing a process which began under our predecessors in relation to the Colonial Office. The Colonial Office is now amalgamated with the Commonwealth Office, and now the combined Department will be amalgamated with the Foreign Office. This will create a burden. On the other hand, the Secretary of State will be responsible for the general conduct of our overseas relations; this will create considerable economies and be more likely to lead to the right answer in very difficult cases.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Is it not most important that the various member countries of the Commonwealth should not feel disparaged or alienated by this change? Has my right hon. Friend consulted other members of the Commonwealth about it? If so, which, and with what result?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir; there was no specific consultation. It is entirely a matter of our own organisation, but, as I said, I have discussed it with a considerable number of Commonwealth Heads of Government, and we are following their practice. I do not feel that this country is in the slightest degree disparaged if, for example, when we are dealing with Canada, Mr. Paul Martin is able to speak as regards both Canada's foreign relations and its Commonwealth relations.

Mr. David Steel

We welcome this decision on general grounds, but could the Prime Minister add to the general welcome which it might receive by indicating what economies in staff will result from the amalgamation of the two Ministries?

The Prime Minister

Already, there has been some evidence of greater efficiency in working because of the matter I referred to, the pooling of services. This is increasing all the time. Naturally, we shall look for greater efficiency and economies. There is in addition the inquiry which we are making into the question of staffing of overseas posts. Hon. Members have often stressed that in the present world we might perhaps review these things, although all of us, I think, would wish to see the greatest possible strengthening both overseas and in the new combined office of representation on matters dealing with the extension of our trade overseas.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Has consideration been given, or will it be given, to any change in the title of High Commissioner, either here or in the overseas territories?

The Prime Minister

This is a matter for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and for a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. It does not arise out of the amalgamation in any sense, because, as I have said, practically every Commonwealth country has a combined Ministry responsible for Commonwealth and overseas affairs. All of them, or very nearly all, have High Commissioners here.