HC Deb 22 June 1972 vol 839 cc684-91
2. Mr. Lipton

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether, in accordance with the relevant sections of Queen's Regulations, recent Press statements by senior Army officers at Headquarters, United Kingdom Land Forces, on the rôle of the Army in countering political subversion and internal disorder were made with his authority; and if he will make a statement.

8. Mrs. Renée Short

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether the statements about political matters by senior Army officers, published in The Times on 23rd May, were made with his authority.

11. Mr. Skinner

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether the statements by senior Army officers published in The Times on 23rd May about Army plans to intervene in industrial disputes were made with his authority; and if he will make a statement.

12. Mr. David Stoddart

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether the statements about the rôle of the Army by senior Army officers published in The Times on 23rd May, 1972, were made with his authority.

19. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Minister of State for Defence if Brigadier Frank Kitson, Major-General Ronald Buckland, Brigadier Brian Watkins and other officers were speaking with his authority when they made public statements on politically controversial issues, such as criticism of the inadequacy of the police to deal with the miners' strike, of television and of the freedom of school students to hold demonstrations; and if he will make a statement.

Lord Balniel

I would refer the hon. Members to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins) on 12th June. Brigadier Kitson was not present on the occasion in question.—[Vol. 838, c. 215–6.]

Mr. Lipton

Has the Minister of State reprimanded the officer concerned for describing visits to his Ministry as popping up to throw a few buns at the odd orang-outangs? Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to tolerate such undisciplined language from high-ranking officers who are supposed to take orders from their political superiors?

Lord Balniel

The officers' recollection of some of their remarks does not in every case coincide with the context in which they are reported. No disciplinary action has been taken. It was thought appropriate to remind all senior officers of their responsibilities under Queen's Regulations but not to take any further action.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Minister of State tell these well-paid generals that, if they are so anxious to get involved in industrial disputes like the miners' dispute as was mentioned in the articles in question, they should get first-hand experience of events that lead up to troubles in the coalfields? Why does not the Minister of State supply these people with pit boots and knee pads and let them crawl along a 2-ft. coal seam for a year, as coalminers have to do, and then perhaps they would know something of what they were talking about?

Lord Balniel

I am not sure whether the House thinks that that question is worthy of an answer. These so-called well-paid generals are people who have devoted a lifetime in the service of their country and I think they are entitled to slightly more consideration from the hon. Gentleman. The discussion, which ranged over an hour and a half, was concerned with Northern Ireland, conditions of service, pay and recruiting, BAOR and the problems of dependants; and there was a short discussion on more general matters. The officers' recollection of some of their comments does not exactly coincide with what appeared in the Press.

Mr. Sharples

Will my right hon. Friend describe more fully the circumstances in which this interview is alleged to have taken place? Does he agree that it is very easy to make a good story by stringing together out of context a number of remarks which may have been made in the course of a long conversation but that it is not very good journalism?

Lord Balniel

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is easy to make a mistake. For instance, the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) has himself made a mistake in his Question. The arrangements for this interview were made by the Ministry of Defence for a journalist—Mr. Walker—who visited Headquarters UKLF on 19th May to gather material for an article on the Army in one of a series. The discussion ranged over a whole series of matters concerning the Service but they did not feature in the article which appeared.

Mr. Stoddart

Will the Minister come off it and stop defending the indefensible? The article in The Times is a responsible one, as articles in The Times usually are. Would he agree that these Army officers are either dangerous politicos and Right-wing members of the Monday Club or simply fools, and in either case should they not be dismissed from the Army? If the Minister will not dismiss them from the Army perhaps he will invite a deputation of Members of Parliament to go along and watch him being fed buns by these comic opera soldiers.

Lord Balniel

If the hon. Member knew the officers concerned he would not describe them as comic opera individuals. All officers down to the rank of lieutenant-colonel have been reminded that it is not for members of the Army to give in public their own views of the rôle of the Army in aid of the civil power. This is an important matter and it was thought right to remind officers of it.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

In view of the Army's front-line experience in Ulster, are not the views of the Army worth listening to as much as, if not more than, those of hon. Members who sit in the comparative safety of the Labour benches and cheer on industrial anarchy and industrial unrest?

Mr. Allaun

Since these top officers knew that they were breaking the regulations in giving such an interview, is a reprimand sufficient? If they had been top civil servants who had made public statements on highly controversial political issues like this, would they not have been demoted or dismissed? Does not the Minister think that that should be done in this case to discourage further similar incidents by the top brass?

Lord Balniel

The hon. Member has made a second mistake. The officers were not breaking the regulations by giving an interview. The interview was authorised by the Ministry of Defence. I have had a report from Headquarters UKLF and it would seem that in a number of respects the officers were surprised by the way in which their conversations with the journalist were reported. For example, some of the remarks made in the mess at lunchtime have almost certainly been reported out of context.

Mr. Goodhart

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the Army should study the nature of the threat to society even if there is some indication that part of the threat comes through acquaintances of certain hon. Members on the Labour benches? [Interruption.]

Lord Balniel

The Army certainly has a responsibility to study tactics for counter-insurgency operations in which it has been engaged under the previous and all other Governments on many occasions since the war. The wider responsibility concerning subversion within the country is not a matter which falls within my responsibility.

Mr. Hattersley

I neither ask for disciplinary action against the officers nor do I ask the Minister of State to treat the article of 23rd May with more seriousness than it deserves, since I know that in part it is as embarrassing to the Army as it is offensive to my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. Our enthusiasm is not that there should be pursuit of persons involved in that operation but that the Minister should make it very clear that the opinions expressed do not represent the opinion of Her Majesty's Government. If the right hon. Gentleman were to make that clear, I am sure we could all let the matter rest.

Lord Balniel

I can certainly make that absolutely clear.

4. Mr. John

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will institute extra measures to prevent the making of public statements of a political nature by serving officers.

Lord Balniel

The necessary guidance is given in Queen's Regulations, to which the attention of the Services is drawn from time to time. I do not think any further measures are necessary.

Mr. John

In view of the anxieties recently expressed and the undoubted political views given to The Times, is it not clear that further guidance is necessary? Is it not also clear that when a book like "Low Intensity Operations", which spills over from tactics into matters of political judgment, talks about the Army being prepared to foment subversion in certain cases, it is in urgent need of re-examination? Should not further guidance be given to officers to remind them that part of their terms of contract is that they keep quiet in public on political subjects?

Lord Balniel

I have already informed the House, I think twice, that the Services have been reminded of the Queen's Regulations.

Mr. Wilkinson

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the very same journalist subsequently produced an article on race relations in the City of Bradford which was totally inflammatory and very wide of the truth? It was repudiated by myself and by the leader of the community relations council in Bradford. If that journalist misjudged the mood of the Army as badly as he misjudged the mood of Bradford, do not all these articles need to be treated with extreme caution?

Lord Balniel

I note what my hon. Friend said, but I am sure he realises that this falls outside my departmental responsibility.

14. Mr. Booth

asked the Minister of State for Defence whether he will place in the Library a copy of the letter which he received from the National Society of Operative Printers regarding statements made to the Press by Army generals at Wilton in relation to political matters, including strikes, counter-subversion, trade unions and the use of television, and his reply to that letter.

34. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Minister of State for Defence what was his reply to representations by the National Society of Operative Printers regarding statements made to the Press by Army generals at Wilton regarding political matters, including strikes, counter-subversion, trade unions and the use of television.

Lord Balniel

My right hon. and noble Friend has replied to the letter sent to him by the National Society of Operative Printers and I have placed copies of the correspondence in the Library today.

Mr. Booth

As publicity was given through the newspapers to highly controversial political views of Army officers, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is entirely appropriate that hon. Members should have access to the views of the trade unionists employed in printing those papers?

Lord Balniel

Yes, Sir. We are most appreciative of the letter which was sent to us, and I am sure that the organisation concerned was equally appreciative of the answer we sent to it.

Mr. Allaun

Does not the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the alarm among trade unionists, who know that it is from precisely this caste of top military officers that the threat to democracy has so often arisen, from General Franco to General Goering?

Lord Balniel

I do not think that in referring to alarm in this country the hon. Gentleman is reflecting the views of the vast majority of the population. He is entitled to his view, but I do not think this is a worry which is widely felt in society.

Mr. Stokes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of people in this country, unlike Labour hon. Members, are delighted that the Army is studying every possible way to combat the enemy within as well as the enemy outside?

Lord Balniel

I believe that I can answer that best by referring to what my noble Friend the Secretary of State said in his reply: It is, of course, important that senior officers avoid making remarks which are open to misconstruction, though in this instance my inquiries lead me to believe that less than justice was done by the manner in which the exchanges were reported.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that no future Labour Government would ever use troops in the way that the Government in 1947 were able to use them during an industrial dispute? Can he conceive of a situation in which the use of troops in this country would occur in the absence of emergency powers giving the authority for them to be so used during an industrial dispute?

Lord Balniel

I believe that the hon. Member is right and that emergency powers would be needed for the use of troops. I recollect, though, that the Labour Government used 11,000 troops in one month in the docks in 1949.

Mr. Atkinson

Never again.

Lord Balniel

The most recent comparable figure I can remember is the use of about 70 troops for one day for the clearing of refuse in Tower Hamlets in 1970.

24. Mr. Latham

asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement concerning the rôle of the Army in industrial disputes and the instructions given to high ranking officers regarding the making of political statements.

Lord Balniel

It is for the Government of the day to decide whether a civil emergency is so serious as to justify using the resources of the Armed Forces to help in maintaining essential supplies or service to the community.

For the second part of the Question, the necessary guidance is given in Queen's Regulations.

Mr. Latham

In view of the earlier exchanges, will the Minister explain to the House, whether a distinction is made between oral political statements and political statements contained in books written by high-ranking officers? As the Minister is not equipped to comment upon the overall contents of Brigadier Kitson's publication, will he be good enough to undertake to make a further statement to the House when he has finished reading the book?

Lord Balniel

As I have explained, the interview referred to was authorised by the Ministry of Defence but the issue of public statements is covered by the relevant paragraphs of Queen's Regulations. One of the principles on which these provisions are based is that public statements or discussions about future defence policy or about controversial issues of current defence policy should be reserved to Ministers. Service personnel are not to express views on such controversial issues to the Press or to other media.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Is HANSARD normally available within Service headquarters so that the views of Shadow Ministers on defence as expressed today may be clearly understood within the Service?

Lord Balniel

I suspect that there will be widespread interest in the exchanges which have taken place and that there will be many orders for today's HANSARD.

Mr. Hattersley

Will the Minister accept that the Opposition are deeply disturbed by the contents of the book and the official recognition of the book, and are a great deal more disturbed by the flippancy and arrogance of the Minister's performance today? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore take it from me that, unless he can find another opportunity to make amends for his performance today, we shall have to return to the subject in the very near future?