HL Deb 07 April 1952 vol 176 cc1-7

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Salisbury, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order No. XXI be dispensed with for to-morrow's Sitting for the purpose of giving precedence to the Motion for the Second Reading of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill over the other Orders of the Day.—(Earl Fortescue.)


My Lords, this of course is a purely procedural Motion, and we cannot on this occasion discuss the substance of the Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill. On the other hand, in considering a procedural Motion of this kind, one has to look at the type and quality of the Bill to which it applies. Unquestionably, rarely have we had in Parliament—certainly not in my experience—a Bill of such an historic, interesting and majestic kind. It is, in fact, an amendment of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was the most glorious moment that this House ever had. That Bill had as its central feature a provision forbidding the Crown to keep armed Forces for more than twelve months.

When we came to this House on Friday I said that we had not received notice that this Army and Air Force (Annual) Bill was to come up here for First Reading. Perhaps I was not quite fair to the noble Earl, Lord Fortescue. In fact, the Bill had been given its Third Reading in another place at three o'clock that morning, so that it could not be officially announced that it would be coming here. On the other hand, there are methods by which a hypothetical Motion might have been placed on the Order Paper. The noble Earl might have done that. However, I do not want to stress that point. But I felt on reading what I had said that perhaps I had not been altogether fair. As I say, this is a Bill to amend the Bill of Rights. The scene on Friday was very interesting, because the Whigs who should have been here were not here, but only myself, who am a sort of Whig, or what we call to-day a Left Wing member of the Labour Party. The Bill was introduced here by the noble Earl who commands the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, an appointment which dates from the time of Henry VII or Henry VIII and which is not subject to the Army (Annual) Act. At one time (I hope it is not so now) the Corps was probably a nest of Jacobite sedition. Along comes the noble Earl, and no one except myself is here to stand up for the Whigs who carried through this Bill triumphantly. It is unfortunate that the Liberals were not present, for the Prince of Orange was their Patron Saint, aided, of course, by the Reverend Titus Oates. That was an extremely interesting scene, and that is why I refer to it now.

I cannot, if I am to remain in order, go into the question of the substance of the Bill, but I asked two questions on Friday. In another place, the authorities announced that this Bill was perpetuating two Acts, the Army (Annual) Act and the Air Force (Annual) Act, which contain a great deal of rotten matter. This is not the moment to refer to them in detail, but they are even ridiculous in some respects. The Government said, "These Acts cannot be perpetuated. On the other hand, we cannot get them amended in time." After one of the most brilliant Parliamentary struggles that have been conducted elsewhere to my knowledge, the Government completely capitulated, and said, "Very well, we will have a Select Committee to go into this matter."

The two questions that I raised on Friday were, first: might this House see the terms of reference of that Select Committee timeously; and, secondly, was this House to be represented on the Select Committee? I ventured to say that, as everybody knows, in this House we have soldiers, sailors and airmen of great eminence. When I reached home I ran my finger through the list and I found that we have sixteen soldiers, sailors and airmen of the standing of the noble and gallant Viscount, Lord Trenchard—Marshals of the Royal Air Force, Admirals of the Fleet and Field Marshals. In addition to that, in this House we have eight ex-Secretaries of State for the Defence Department. Therefore, it seems to me very reasonable (I am sure I shall meet with a satisfactory reply to this question) that we should be represented when the Committee is set up. All these points are purely procedural.

There was one other point which I raised—namely, who was to take charge of this Bill during its passage through this House. The noble Earl replied that it would be the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Air. I am sure that no one could be a more welcome, industrious or capable exponent of a matter of the usual kind, but this Bill covers far more than a departmental question. I was a Secretary of State for Air. I was the last Secretary of State who sat in the Cabinet, and we had no means in my office of finding out officially what was the practice in the Army. I do not know where the Secretary of State for Air is going to get his information. I do not know whether he will go to the Judge-Advocate General's Department or to the Defence Ministry. But, clearly, of his own departmental knowledge he does not possess the information.

Moreover, with great respect to him, he has not Cabinet authority. There are questions of Service discipline which concern all the Services. Though, of course, the Naval Discipline Act is not involved, it is clear that discipline in the Air Force and the Army must be assimilated to the discipline in the Navy. I therefore pleaded with the Government that the famous Field-Marshal who is Minister of Defence should come to the debate. I should be the last to ask him to take charge of the details, but I hope the Government will be able to say that he will be present, because there is one matter in particular which I intend to raise—I must not mention it now—which will deal, certainly, with two, and possibly with all three, of the Services. Those are the questions which I put. I apologise for repeating them to-day, and I am sure that I shall receive from the Government a reasonable and satisfactory answer.

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, we have had two very interesting speeches from the noble and gallant Viscount which have certainly enlivened our debates. I should hate—and I am sure the whole House would—to deprive him of any occasion or opportunity on which his historical knowledge, and still more his historical imagination, could be so helpfully deployed.


It is only of school-book standard.


The noble Viscount does himself an injustice. His imagination reminds me of that of Mr. Hilaire Belloc—indeed, I think perhaps the noble Viscount is even slightly more imaginative. I personally like imaginative history, written or told with a really good bit of prejudice. The noble Viscount is, indeed, a true successor of Macaulay in that respect. But let me come to the more practical or more immediate issues which he raised. I do not think he has any great ground for complaint that my noble friend, who, alas! is not in the Cabinet, moved the First Reading of the Bill. A First Reading is a rather formal procedure and, indeed, I am not sure that we have ever before in the history of this House had a discussion on the First Reading of a Bill. At any rate, it has not been very frequent. But far be it from me to object to this innovation. Certainly, the noble Viscount "got it off his chest"—if I may be allowed to use such a phrase—on that occasion. I am sorry that there should again to-day be empty Benches below the Gangway where he should find would-be Allies and associated powers.

We shall to-morrow proceed to take the Second Reading of the Bill. I understand that by general agreement in the House it was considered convenient that that should be taken rather formally—though I am certainly not trying to prevent anyone from making a speech. I understand, from information reaching me through the usual channels, that the idea was that the Second Reading would not occupy very much time, and then—of course we have very few rules of order in this House—we should proceed to what I understand the whole House wants—namely a rather general discussion on Army matters. There will, of course, also be a Committee stage. That will come on April 22. Let me assure noble Lords that when we arrive at the Committee stage, Amendments which are put down, or any matter which is raised in the debate, will, so far as lies within our power, be adequately dealt with.

I do not think it is wholly reasonable for the noble Viscount to say that a Cabinet Minister should be here for that debate. I have no doubt that the Minister of Defence will be here; in fact, we have in this House several members of the Cabinet. But, after all, the whole Cabinet is not here. I would remind the House that in past days we who are now on this side certainly did not object when noble Lords who then occupied this position took charge of measures—as they did most adequately—although they might not have been in the Cabinet. We played the part then assigned to us, and we raised various points on different Bills. We were not quite so good at it as the noble Viscount, but we did our best, proxime accessit. We were perfectly content, for example, when the noble Lord who for the moment is leading the Opposition—Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor—took charge of a Bill. And, to do him justice, he always showed himself perfectly capable of dealing with any matter that was raised. I know that there are sometimes divisions in Parties (or so we understand), but let me assure noble Lords that relations within our Party continue to be very friendly and that we have close association with one another. Therefore, when any Minister gets up here to answer he does so in full agreement with all his colleagues and also with all information from the different Departments concerned at his disposal. I think that on this occasion we shall he able completely to satisfy the noble Viscount.

As regards the other matters which he has raised, I can tell him this. I cannot at the moment make a statement about the terms of reference, because discussions are still going on, or about the composition of the Select Committee, the appointment of which was promised in the discussions on the Bill in another place. I do not think it was a great triumph that was achieved, a sort of Bill of Rights. We all thought it was a sensible thing to get some people together. It was not a great battle in which the noble Viscount defeated the forces of Armageddon, and I hope that we shall not approach it in that spirit. I can promise the noble Viscount that a statement will be made at the earliest possible moment, and that we shall inform him and the House of the composition of the Select Committee and their terms of reference as soon as we are in a position to do so. I hope that I have given the noble Viscount all the information he requires—it is certainly all the information in my possession.


My Lords, by leave of the House, I thank the noble Viscount very sincerely for what he has said. By "at the earliest possible moment" does he mean by the debate to-morrow, because I think it is an important point that this House should be represented on the Committee?


My Lords, by "at the earliest possible moment" I mean "at the earliest possible moment." Whether the discussions which are going on between both sides will have been completed in time for a statement to be made to-morrow, I do not know. If it is all settled by to-morrow, then a statement will be made in both Houses at the same time. I can promise the noble Lord that, if the House is sitting, at the earliest possible moment after a decision has been arrived at an announcement will be made; but I cannot promise him exactly when that will be.


My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount very much.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.