HL Deb 28 January 1954 vol 185 cc523-6

3.7 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given private notice—namely, whether the Minister of Defence had been authorised to make his speech on defence policy to the Constitutional Club in London yesterday, reports of which appeared in the Press this morning, and, if so, why the Government elected to make the first announcement of such an important character on defence policy elsewhere than in Parliament, at a time when Parliament is in Session?


My Lords, with all deference to the noble Viscount, he appears to be under a complete misapprehension as to the character of my noble and gallant friend's speech. It was not the first announcement of a new trend in Government defence policy; it merely the reaffirmation of statements which had already been made in one form or another by responsible Ministers.


I always like to have from the Leader of the House the very factual explanation which he gives to the House, but I must say that in my experience I do not remember a speech of this importance having been made in such circumstances, especially just a few weeks before the White Paper on Defence policy for the year is due to be delivered to Parliament and to be there discussed. Moreover, whilst there is no doubt that there are points in the speech which have been debated from time to time in different stages of the progress of thought, there are, nevertheless, features about this speech which cause great mental activity to some people in both Houses of Parliament.

I feel—and from my knowledge of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House and of his experience in another place, I think he will probably agree—that on these matters of important policy it is fundamental that the rights of Her Majesty's Parliament should be observed in these matters. And whilst, of course, there may be exceptions here and there in public policy where that procedure may be departed from, it is fundamental, in the long run, that in one place the elected representatives of the people and the other part of the Constitution here should have their opportunity of considering at first hand changes of importance in Government policy.


I am sure the noble Viscount will believe me when I say that I am just as jealous as anybody else of the rights and privileges of Parliament. But in fact, in spite of what the noble Viscount says, there was no new and startling declaration of policy. I do not know what the noble Viscount has particularly in mind, but if it is the question of what I may call the "flattening out" of defence preparations, that was mentioned quite specifically by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. All that my noble and gallant friend did was slightly to elaborate what had already been said. Though I would agree that startling or ultra-important declarations of policy should be made, of course, to Parliament, there certainly has never been in my lifetime a sort of hard and fast rule that no expositions of Government policy should be made outside the House. That really is not so—indeed, there are a great many examples to the contrary.

I think it would be true to say— I think I have said it myself—that there have been demands in the Press and elsewhere within recent months and weeks for elucidation of Government defence policy. After all, it is a main duty—if not quite the main duty—of the Minister of Defence to inform the public and to remove misapprehensions of various kinds. I can see nothing in the speech which indicates an alteration of policy or which could do anything but good in informing the public as to what the position is. When these debates to which the noble Viscount quite rightly referred take place, I think it will be of advantage to the House to know what the Minister of Defence has said.


Is the noble Marquess quite satisfied that he has made out a complete case? If there was not anything particularly important in this speech, or anything new, why was it made in such august circumstances? Why is it reported in so prominent a place in tie newspapers? It may be true that there was not any new matter, that all he was saying was, "We must be economically strong," and all the things that we knew so well. But why say so at this moment, unless there was some need of policy for doing so? Surely this House, which usually rises about tea-time, and which has the privilege of having the Minister of Defence here, is the proper place in which to make such a speech?


I have never heard it said—I do not think it could be properly said—that the Minister of Defence in the Government of the day cannot make any statement on defence policy except in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. He goes round the country, and always has done, and he makes speeches. It is one of his proper tasks—sometimes an onerous one, but one which he has to undertake. People expect him to speak on the subject with which he is most familiar. I think noble Lords opposite are making a mountain out of a molehill in regard to this.


I particularly did not bring to the House a copy of the report of the very lengthy speech, because I did not want it to be inferred in this House that I wished to discuss its merits. I am sorry to say that I do not quite agree with what the noble Marquess has said about the other aspect of the speech, that it is not new. I am certain that it will be treated with very great interest indeed in the world Press, as reflecting the very difficult world situation in regard to armaments. I should have preferred that it should be put before Parliament first. But in view of the fact that the speech has been made, and since it may be weeks or months before we are able to have a debate on the White Paper, perhaps the noble Marquess might consider our having an early discussion on the matters contained within the ambit of the Minister's speech. I am not in any way criticising the Minister of Defence; I am criticising the Government that the Minister of Defence has made the speech. I have no doubt at all that whatever speech he made, he made with authority. Therefore, I am criticising the procedure. I want the Minister of Defence to know that in the process we lose none of our respect for him.


My Lords, with regard to the question of an early discussion, I should hardly have thought that that would be justified. I think the information which my noble friend has given, both to the House and to the country, and to anybody who wished to read it, will be of great value when the White Paper comes along. But when a White Paper is shortly coming out, surely it is better to await it before having a debate. I have no complaint at all that the noble Viscount should have raised this matter. While I think that this is the sort of thing which should be threshed out in Parliament, I think that on this occasion his anxieties are rather exaggerated.