HL Deb 27 February 1952 vol 175 cc373-8

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lords, I have very much enjoyed participating in a real debate in this House. That is a pleasant change for private members after the company meetings and literary societies in which we usually revel from day to day. This morning there appeared in the Press a matter both urgent and important and therefore I sought to put to the Minister concerned, the Air Minister, a Private Notice Question. I was informed that time was required to collect information and that a Private Notice Question would be inconvenient, though no doubt in order. As I am crippled by a sense of discipline, I naturally postponed the Question and take this unusual opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment.

The matter is as follows. In the newspapers this morning we were told that over Egypt yesterday, to-day and tomorrow there is to be the largest air exercise since 1949. Aircraft are to come from Malta, Aden, Cyprus and this country, as well as from the Canal Zone, in order to carry out this immense exercise. This exercise terminates tomorrow; therefore the Question I wish to raise is urgent. On Saturday Sir Ralph Stevenson is to meet Ali Maher Pasha with a view to continuing the Treaty negotiations. I am sure we are all glad that a temporary stability has been arrived at in Egyptian affairs and that the tension which led to the disastrous events in Cairo is at an end, at any rate for the moment. What I am asking is: who was responsible for taking this occasion to demonstrate over the skies of Egypt, in the eyes, of every fellah turning his little patch, this immense display of air power? The effect of this on the mind of the Egyptian people must be tremendous. Some people may think that that is a good thing, but other people, including myself, think it is a thorough mistake in judgment. I should like to know whether the Foreign Office were consulted in this matter.

Further, this event raises doubts about what has happened before. When the General Officer Commanding, who is acting in a Service capacity and is above criticism in this or any other Parliamentary Assembly, decided to destroy that village of seventy-five houses (and I understand that, even now, compensation has not been paid to these people) and decided in Ismailia to attack with tanks to anticipate trouble, was he also acting on some carte blanche which had been given to him in advance? I raise this question because the fact that this has happened—that this, as I think, most unfortunate exercise has taken place at this time, which may prejudice negotiations to which we all wish well—suggests that there is, I think it is called, a dichotomy, a division, or an independence in these two matters, which might be very damaging to the public interest.

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, naturally I and my colleagues on these Benches are very anxious to facilitate the Business of this House and to afford any member of the House, whether Government or Opposition, opportunities of discussing matters of urgent public importance. But I think I ought to make it clear that I first had a message on this matter from my own Department at half-past one to-day, and on such a delicate matter I did not think it right to offer to answer a Private Notice Question. I thought it might be better first to inform myself full upon the subject. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, in consideration of that, said that he would raise the matter upon the Adjournment. The noble Viscount it well-known in this House for his wit, for his Parliamentary powers, and for his habit—and it is a growing habit—of telling us how we ought to behave. If I may say so, the noble Viscount is a private member but be speaks with the authority of one sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. I have always been toll that when you sit upon the Front Bend and represent the views of your Party you must speak with the greatest care, particularly on international matters.

Since this matter has been reported in the newspapers, I am happy to give an explanation of what has happened. But I hope that it will not go out from this House, or from the noble Viscount, that there is anything sinister in this. This is an exercise to practise the Royal Air Force squadrons in the defence of the Canal Zone. Such an exercise is part of the routine training of any air defence system and is a periodical occurrence. It is important that the actual course of this exercise should not be represented as an abnormal passage of low-flying jet aircraft over the populous parts of Egypt, such as the noble Viscount—


I never mentioned the words "low-flying."


I am happy if the noble Viscount did not do so.


I am glad the noble Lord is happy, but I did not say it.


Perhaps the noble Viscount will allow me to make my own speech. As I said, it should not be represented as an abnormal passage of low-flying jet aircraft over the populous parts of Egypt. In fact, as noble Lords know, interceptions are normally attempted as far away as can be contrived from the area to be defended. They usually take place at great heights and are very often out of earshot. It must also be remembered—so that we may see this matter in proportion—that, as a matter of general flying routine, flying takes place from Royal Air Force airfields in the Canal Zone at all times during the day and night, and aircraft are normally and frequently seen taking off in formation. There is every reason to suppose that no intensification of flying will be noticeable from the ground. Indeed, we have been clearly and specifically advised from Egypt that no one on the ground who had not been told would have been aware that this exercise was in progress. There will be little, if any, flying over the Delta and none over El Arish or any other prohibited area.

For these reasons, no political significance can or should be attached to this exercise. As I have said, if through misapprehension of the nature and form of the exercise such significance has been given, I welcome this opportunity of putting the matter in its proper perspective. Training on both a large and small scale is essential to the efficiency of the Royal Air Force, and ought not to be interrupted unless very strong reasons can be adduced for doing so. No significance, therefore, attaches to this exercise at this time. It is in conformity with our Treaty rights. The Egyptian authorities have been informed; their military authorities in the Canal Zone were also informed and raised no objection. I hope that I have satisfied your Lordships' House that this exercise was properly authorised and properly undertaken.

7.7 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down (as they say) will be kindly tell us, when he says that people were informed, whether this was done after consultation with the British Ambassador in Cairo, and whether attention was paid to the very important character of the negotiations taking place? Secondly, is this, in fact, the largest air exercise since 1949? Thirdly, was it given a special name and called "High Time"?—which seems to indicate (I do not know) a confident or even an aggressive tone?


My Lords, I will deal with the last question first. The noble Viscount's views on Egypt are well known in the House, but I do ask him not to import any prejudice into these matters. No significance whatsoever attaches to the name, and he ought not, in his responsible position, to try to attach importance to it at this time, particularly if, as he says, he is so concerned about the negotiations. As to the other matters, the Ambassador in Cairo was informed, and approved. He is well aware of the delicacy of the negotiations which are being entered into.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to pursue the matter under discussion, but in view of what the noble Lord has said, I should like to say a few words. First of all, as I understand the procedure of this House and the other place, every member, whether he sits on the Front or Back Benches, is under the same obligation to take due care in asking his questions. There is no distinction between the Front and the Back Benches in that respect. Secondly, I should like to say this. I very much hope that in this House we shall avail ourselves more than hitherto of the corresponding privilege which they have in the House of Commons, to call attention to a matter as one of public importance. Speaking from rather long experience, I may tell the noble Lord Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, that, if that is going to be done, one cannot expect very long notice of these matters. Indeed, if the noble Lord had as long as two hours' notice he probably exceeded "bogey. "You must have these questions shot at you suddenly. I very much hope, that the noble Lord will not take it amiss if any noble Lord, in whatever part of the House he sits, who feels that there is some urgent matter he should raise, puts a Question to the Minister concerned, who, presumably, will then do his best to answer. If that notice is very short he will not be able to give much of an answer, but I hope he will not resent the Question. I hope that the noble Lord did not resent the fact that my noble friend asked a question to see what information he could give him. For my part, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the information he did give, and I hope that it has removed some of the anxiety which was in the mind of my noble friend Lord Stansgate.

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I ought to say a few words about this matter, because I was consulted. I came back at half past one from meeting my colleague and was told of this projected Question by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. Of course, every noble Lord has the right to ask a Question in this House: and nobody will dispute that. But I am sure the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, will equally agree that in matters of foreign affairs—indeed, the noble Viscount's question raised very wide and difficult issues—it would hardly be possible for any Government to give an immediate reply without proper consultation. The Foreign Office and also the Service Department had to be consulted in regard to the Question. Therefore, I asked the noble Viscount whether he would mind postponing his Question and he readily agreed.

Although the present procedure is an unusual one in this House, I do not in the least complain of it and I am grateful to the noble Viscount for agreeing to postpone his Question in the first place. However, I am sure the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, if he were sitting here, would take the same view as we are taking now. And I would emphasise to him that, whatever the rights of noble Lords on Front or Back Benches may be, they do not override the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the reply given is given with due thought and after proper consultation. I am sure that there is no difference between us in this matter, but I want it to be quite clear. I know that in earlier Parliaments my predecessor, the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, and I had much to do with Private Notice Questions. I used to go to him and ask him about it, but I would never have taken it amiss if he had said that there was no time to prepare an answer. It became a matter which would have to be postponed, and in this way we used to work together as best we could.


My Lords, I entirely agree. To be quite frank, I thought the noble Lord had shown a little resentment that the question had been asked. It is the right of any member of this House to ask such a question, and it is the right of the noble Lord, when he answers, so to frame his answer as to take the greatest possible care that he does no mischief to public affairs in any way. I quite agree with that. It is only for the reason that I have indicated that I thought it necessary to intervene. I wish I had been asked about this matter at an earlier stage, because I did not know about it until just now.


My Lords, I thought it right to start with the explanation only in ease the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, should be misinterpreted. I specifically said that we were at the disposal of the House to answer questions. I thought it right to say that I had only had an hour's notice of a very important matter affecting foreign affairs.


My Lords, I have no complaint at all. I am concerned with only one point. I have been interested in this Egyptian business, and I have done my best to secure an accord. Such an accord may be in sight, and I was extremely anxious that nothing should be done through any mistaken policy which might worsen the atmosphere for the negotiations which are about to take place.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and House adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past seven o'clock.