HL Deb 27 July 1936 vol 102 cc269-76

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government if they will consider the advisability of appointing an official Foreign Office representative in this House. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question to which this Notice has reference is a very familiar subject in this House, and out of consideration for noble Lords who are present I will cut my observations down to a minimum. If the Government wore constituted on rational principles, and appointments were made simply with a view to the national interest, there could be no doubt whatsoever that the Foreign Secretary would be a member of this House. The increased work which is being continually thrust upon him, the increased interest which is being taken by the public generally in foreign affairs, and the fact that a large portion of the Foreign Secretary's time, increasing every year, is wasted at Geneva, all support this contention that we ought to have the Foreign Minister in this House. His position is different to that of any other Minister, and he ought to have ample time to study the questions entrusted to his care.

If in spite of this it is found necessary to have the Foreign Minister in another place, and if in addition to that the Prime Minister is always in another place, and if, again, in addition the Foreign Minister has the assistance of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Overseas Trade Department, which is really a branch of the Foreign Office, it seems to me fairly evident that we have a claim, without being arrogant, to representation of the Foreign Office in this House. I do not suppose anybody will dissent from that view. We emphatically require a representative of the Foreign Office in this House, and it is a lamentable fact that we have just been deprived of a direct representative of that office. The annoying part of it is that this state of affairs has been created by the virtues of my noble friend Lord Stanhope, who in accordance with the immemorial practice of this country, had no sooner grasped the minutiæ of his duties and thoroughly understood the work of his Department than he was transferred to another Office. I may point out that the office to which he has been transferred is one which will give him more trouble than any other in view of the approaching Coronation, and, if he is a person of a nervous disposition, I should think he already must be passing sleepless nights thinking of the incredible number of enemies he will create when it is his task to allot places and make the arrangements for the Coronation. In these circumstances how can he possibly discharge the duties adequately of representing the Foreign Office? It may be described almost as a ludicrous proposal that he should combine these two positions.

I take it that everybody is agreed, theoretically at least, in principle that we ought to have a representative here. There is no question about that. The question is how are we going to get him? I have seen various suggestions made, and one of them is that an additional Under-Secretary should be created. I rule that suggestion out at once, because I do not think there would be any sound reason for appointing a second Undersecretary at the Foreign Office. He takes no part in the administration of the office, and it would really amount to this, that you would be creating an extra Minister merely for the purpose of answering questions. But there is another reason against such a proposal and that is that there is a very strong feeling in the country—I think it is almost universal—against the continual multiplying of offices and of officials. I remember that only a few years ago the present Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin, announced that at some time he was going to abolish four Departments. I think they were the Ministry of Transport, the Overseas Department, the Pensions Department and the Mines Department. It was said to be in his favour that he was going to do that because it was a movement in favour of economy. But not one of those Ministries disappeared. On the contrary, they are all retained, and are much bigger than they were before. I should not be surprised if the Ministry of Pensions is not larger than it was, although the pensions are diminishing in number. The Ministry of Mines, which was originally, to use a vulgar phrase, a "one-man show," has developed into a complete Department with a representative in another place, a Parliamentary Secretary, although in reality the Ministry of Mines is only an adjunct of the Home Office.


The Board of Trade.


I apologise. Anyhow, I venture to express the opinion that, if anything, the various Departments are over represented. Every Department almost has got two representatives, and some of them have got three. There is the War Office. It has three representatives, although the Army is much smaller than it was. The Admiralty is in the same position. The Admiralty has three representatives. I often wonder what the duties of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty are. Perhaps my noble friend will enlighten me upon that point when he gets up. Yet the Admiralty has a Navy much smaller than it had, and one would have thought that some reduction could have been effected in that representation. It really comes to this: there are so many Under-Secretaries and Parliamentary Secretaries of this and that kind that I believe I am correct in saying there are something like sixty placemen in another place. It seems to me quite incredible that amongst these sixty placemen somebody could not be found to answer unimportant questions relating to the Foreign Office when they are put in another place.

If the Foreign Secretary is a member of the House of Commons naturally he will be worked very hard. The Opposition will see to that. They will insist upon his answering everything he can possibly answer, and what is left over is practically negligible and could be done by almost anybody else. Therefore the suggestion which I venture with great diffidence to put forward is that a substitute should be found for the present Under-Secretary in another place and his duties be undertaken by one of the sixty persons whom I have enumerated. I do not know who decides these questions, but I suppose it is the Prime Minister, and I have a lurking suspicion in my mind, amounting almost to a conviction, that the Prime Minister does not think much of this place. I think he has rather a poor opinion of it on the whole, and I expect he will retain that opinion until he enters it himself. In the meantime, I have always been under the impression that my noble friend the Leader of this House exercises considerable influence upon him, and I hope he will do his best to carry out the suggestion which I have ventured to put forward. I observe that he practically gave a promise that there should be a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture here sometime in the future, and I hope he will gratify me and the House by saying that the same privilege will be accorded with regard to the Foreign Office.


My Lords, I only want to add a very brief word in support of the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Newton. I will not go into any of the reasons which he has given for it and with which for the most part I agree, but would like, if I might, to add one or two additional reasons. It seems to me that your Lordships' House is essentially a place where one of the representatives of the Foreign Office in the Government should have his seat. Your Lordships' House is always likely to have among its members a large number of people of very wide past experience in foreign countries and in the Dominions, which very often overlap to some extent with foreign issues. The majority of the Permanent Under-Secretaries of State in the Foreign Office that I can remember have been promoted to your Lordships' House. There is, therefore, here a large body of opinion of great value for maintaining contact.

I am perfectly aware that Administrations, and especially Government offices, rather dislike any suggestion of consultation with any people of former experience, and it does not very often take place. I remember my own chief, the late Lord Cromer, telling me that, after twenty-seven years in Egypt, once he came back to England his opinion was never asked by any official person on any official question again. Still I think there is a certain loss of valuable material through this lack of contact. That contact should be maintained in your Lordships' House and such information as can be derived from the experience of people who have passed through the mill, but who very often still keep in touch with their old associations in other countries, should remain available by our having, if not the Secretary of State, whom I would prefer to see in your Lordships' House, at any rate an Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs permanently established here. I therefore beg to support the suggestion of my noble friend.


My Lords, I would also say a word in support of Lord Newton's suggestion. I remember that twenty-five years ago, when I happened to be private secretary to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Under-Secretary was Lord Edmund Fitzmaurice who came here and became Under-Secretary of State in your Lordships' House. Shortly after that he became Chancellor of the Duchy, and was succeeded as Under-Secretary by Mr. McKinnon Wood who was a member of the House of Commons. There was at that time a great outcry in your Lordships' House. I was not a member of this House at the time, but I remember that a strong representation was made that someone should be appointed who sat in this House to answer the less important questions put upon foreign affairs. Questions of importance were always dealt with by the Leader of the House.

The experiment was made and one of the Lords-in-Waiting—I think Lord Herschell—was appointed to represent the Foreign Office. He was given the run of the office, but I think it is quite impossible for any man who is not a member of the office—it is not always an easy job even for the Under-Secretary himself—to obtain full knowledge of what is going on in the Department. I am speaking of a good many years ago. It was a good sized office then, but now of course it is infinitely larger. I am quite certain that no one can adequately represent the Department unless he is a Minister engaged in the work of the Department who has everything going through his hands every day. When I was at the Foreign Office all Despatches and papers that were put before the Secretary of State returned in a box through the Under-Secretaries who in that way were kept in touch with the various departments. I think that is the only way in which a Minister can adequately represent the Foreign Office.

Up to the time when Sir Edward Grey became Foreign Secretary it had been the general rule, if not the invariable rule, that the Secretary of State should be a member of your Lordships' House. That was the case with Lord Salisbury, Lord Kimberley, Lord Rosebery, Lord Derby, and one has to go back a good many years before coming to a member of the other place as Foreign Secretary. It has been said that there is a difficulty about appointing another Under-Secretary because he might become a fifth wheel to the coach. When a member of the House of Commons did become Foreign Secretary the pressure of work was so great that it was felt necessary that the Under-Secretary should also be a member of the House of Commons. I do not know the Foreign Office at the present time, but I should imagine that there is work enough there for another Under-Secretary, especially if he gives his mind to becoming fully acquainted with all the work of the office. Now that the representation of this country at Geneva and elsewhere is entrusted—not, to my mind, very desirably or successfully—to members of the Government and not to professional diplomatists, there is a great deal more work for Ministers in the Foreign Office than was formerly the case. Therefore I am tempted to think that if a second Under-Secretary was appointed, as was done in the case of my noble friend who has just left the office, the system would work admirably and give that satisfaction to your Lordships' House which my noble friend Lord Newton asked for in his speech.


My Lords, it will be within your Lordships' recollection, as my noble friend reminded us, that it was only some three or four days ago that it fell to me to answer a not dissimilar Motion in regard to another office, and I am sure all your Lordships will agree with me in expressing regret that the noble Lord in whose name that Motion stood should so soon have passed away from us. The noble Lord who asked this Question to-day did so, if he will allow me to say so, in one of the speeches that we have learned to expect of him and that combine much wisdom and shrewdness with a felicity of wit and expression which all of us who listen to him always wish we could command ourselves. It is quite true, as he said, that the lack of representation of the Foreign Office in this House at this moment is due to the superlative merits of my noble friend Earl Stanhope who until lately was such a direct representative, and I am sure that on behalf of my noble friend behind me I can express his gratitude to the noble Lord who asked the Question for the sympathy expressed with him in entering a more difficult and more strenuous life at the Office of Works. I think I can to this degree reassure him that, so far as I have been able to judge, the noble Earl is not of a very nervous disposition and I hope he will be able to surmount the difficulties which will undoubtedly await him in his new responsibilities.

It is quite true, as has been said, that foreign policy, more to-day than at any other time, is the centre of interest both inside and outside this House, and it is also true, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennell said, that this House does, for reasons that are very familiar to us all, command a degree of knowledge in foreign affairs of which it would be the height of unwisdom to fail to make use. The fact that that is so, I readily admit, constitutes a strong case for your Lordships to claim direct representation of this office as well as that other to which reference was made a few days ago, in order that when matters of that sort are in debate it may be possible for us to be given information by one who is directly connected with the affairs to which attention has been directed. I think it is indubitably true, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, that it is extremely difficult for anybody to give that information and speak with that degree of intimate knowledge and authority unless he is intimate with the day-to-day working of the office and is in the habit of seeing the passage of events from day to day at close quarters.

Your Lordships will remember that there was a very considerable debate on this subject in this House at the end of 1933, when my noble friend Earl Peel moved a Resolution in the sense of my noble friend's Question to-day, and I think that he himself supported the Motion on that occasion. The reply on behalf of His Majesty's Government at that time was made by the noble and learned Viscount who habitually sits upon the Woolsack, whose temporary absence we greatly deplore. We hope soon again to see him here. Replying on that occasion he admitted as fully as I have done this afternoon that absence of direct representation of the Foreign Office was a great disadvantage to this House in view both of the complexity and the delicacy of the questions that from time to time are involved. On that occasion he very definitely said what I must again, on my own behalf, say this afternoon: that it was not possible for him to give any definite promise on behalf of the Prime Minister that the matter should be redressed in the sense in which the noble Lord desires; but he was willing to say that the matter was engaging the Prime Minister's attention and that he hoped that it would be possible before long to meet your Lordships' wishes, if such they were, in that regard.

I can go no farther than that to-day, but I can assure my noble friend that I shall convey his representations to the Prime Minister, that I do not think the Prime Minister is as tempted to be neglectful of the interests of this House as my noble friend was perhaps disposed to think, and that I have good hope that if my noble friend would allow the Prime Minister lime for reflection on what he has said this afternoon it may not be impossible to meet his wishes in this regard.