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First Sea Lord (Speech)

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 14 March 1951

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asked the Minister of Defence whether the speech made by the First Sea Lord at Gibraltar on Monday, 5th March, with regard to the appointment of an American admiral as Supreme Atlantic Commander, was made with his approval; and under what arrangements the wide and immediate official publicity was given to this speech.


asked the Minister of Defence whether, in view of the statement of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Eraser of North Cape, he will take steps to ensure that personal statements of opinion are not made by senior officers in His Majesty's Forces on matters of major Government policy while such matters are under consideration by this House.

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) on Monday last. No action was taken by the Admiralty to give publicity to this speech.

May I draw the attention of the Minister to the King's Regulations, paragraph 17 (2):

"All persons belonging to the Fleet are forbidden to write or otherwise to communicate to the Press, or publish or allow to be published, directly or indirectly, any matter or information relating to the Naval Service, or anything of a controversial nature affecting other departments of the public service or relating to matters of public policy, unless the permission of the Admiralty has been first obtained."

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker, will you inform the House whether we are still on Question Time, because it seems to me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sit down."]—that the right hon. Gentleman is not trying to ask a question.

I think we had better carry on. After all, it is my responsibility. I do not want more heat raised today than necessary. Let us get on.

I will continue.

"They are further forbidden, without first obtaining Admiralty permission, to deliver publicly or broadcast any lecture or read any paper on such subjects, or, in any published speech dealing with such subjects"—
[HON. MEMBERS: "That is not a question."]
"to express opinions which are likely to give rise to controversy."
May I ask——

There is so much noise that I cannot tell whether the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), is raising a point of order or not.

It is no good the hon. and learned Gentleman saying "On a point of order" and then not raising the point of order. I was waiting to hear him.

My point of order is this, Sir. Is it fair to other hon. Members who have Questions later on the Order Paper to have to hear a speech made in the middle of Question Time?

We ought to be able to discuss these matters. In view of this perfectly clear paragraph in the King's Regulations, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Admiralty gave permission to the present First Sea Lord to make the speech attributed to him?

Since the right hon. Gentleman has raised the question of King's Regulations, I would point out that I understand that the governing regulation is 541 (b), which, in view of what the right hon. Gentleman stated, I venture to read to the House:

"No officer or soldier or member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service is permitted to take any active part in the affairs of any political organisation or party either by acting as a member of a candidate's"—

It says:

"no officer or soldier or member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service is permitted to take any active part.…"
It is a regulation which covers the three Services. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will permit me to read the passage perhaps it will illuminate their minds. In any event, I intend to read it. It continues:
"either by acting as a member of a candidate's selection committee, or by speaking in public or publishing or distributing literature in furtherance of the political purposes of any such organisation or party, or in any other manner until he or she has retired, resigned or been discharged or, in the case of a field marshal, until he has relinquished any appointment that he may be holding."
King's Regulations for the Royal Navy and Admiralty Instructions contain a similar passage.

I have read a passage which entirely contradicts that and which was taken from the King's Regulations for the Naval Services. Surely that is relevant——

On a point of order. Is not the right hon. Gentleman imparting information rather than seeking it?

What I ask, arising from that, is this: Was permission given by the First Lord of the Admiralty or other Ministerial authority to the First Sea Lord to enter upon this subject in the manner which has been attributed to him?

As regards the alleged contradiction in King's Regulations, I must not be held to be responsible for King's Regulations as a whole. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I must not be held to be responsible for the whole of King's Regulations; I have to interpret them. I did not prepare them. As regards the second part of the supplementary question, I understand that there was no consultation between the First Sea Lord and the First Lord of the Admiralty; indeed, there was no occasion why there should have been. The First Sea Lord, at a gathering of naval personnel, merely stated what had been stated by the Prime Minister in the House on a previous occasion.

But is it not very desirable to keep the high naval and military professional authorities, actively serving, out of matters of controversy in Parliament?

I am quite certain—and the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of this—that in the three Services high ranking officers, and, indeed, all personnel, are anxious to keep out of political controversy. But they did not start the political controversy. It was the right hon. Gentleman.

Now, with very great respect, I put this question to the Prime Minister. Does he approve of the Minister of Defence deliberately justifying what has been a breach of King's Regulations?

I take my stand on the Regulation which I read to the House. I stand by the Regulation to which I have referred, and, what is more, so far as I can ascertain, the First Sea Lord did not in any sense, or in the spirit or in the letter, violate King's Regulations.

Does the right hon. Gentleman repudiate—[Interruption.] It does not worry me at all to be interrupted: I like it. Does the right hon. Gentleman repudiate the Regulation which I read from the Navy Regulations, by which officers have to be guided from day to day? Does he, as head of the defence Services?

I do not seek to repudiate any section of King's Regulations, but I take my stand on that passage in King's Regulations to which I referred; and, perhaps, I should add this, because I think it ought to be said——

Perhaps I should add this, that if the First Sea Lord had made a statement contrary to the statement which he made, which was merely a reaffirmation of what the Prime Minister had said, I doubt very much whether the right hon. Gentleman would have raised it on the Floor of the House.

It is quite impossible for me to know what any one is saying. I cannot hear a single word. Suppose we have a little silence, so that I can hear something. Is the right hon. Gentleman rising to a point of order?

Yes, Sir; it seems to be the only way one is allowed to speak in this House. [Interruption.]

We are getting very excited. After all, perhaps that is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman likes to see—everybody getting up at once. Try, not to play that game.

On a point of order. Is it not a very insulting charge for the Minister of Defence to make, that I should have adopted—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite are afraid to hear the case put—a totally different view of King's Regulations, if the First Sea Lord's opinions had been of a very different nature from those which have been expressed? Is it not very much better that all parties should join together to keep the professional heads of the Services out of political matters?

A point of order has been put to me. I was going to say something about it. It seems I am not allowed to say a word in the House. That question was not a point of order at all.

On a point of order. This Question was put down by a Tory back bencher, and immediately the Question was answered by the Minister of Defence the Leader of the Opposition barged to the Despatch Box—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—and has since taken all the supplementaries. We want to know what rights back benchers have in this matter. Is it not the case that it is the hon. Member who puts a Question down who asks the first supplementary? The back benchers have not been allowed to put supplementary questions. The right hon. Gentleman opposite has asked them.

I have no authority over that. That is a matter between the baok bencher and the Leader of the Opposition.

I merely wish to say this in defence of the First Sea Lord, that it seemed to me and to the First Lord of the Admiralty that what the First Sea Lord had done was to comment, and quite naturally, to a meeting of naval personnel on a matter affecting the command organisation in which he is vitally interested. There was no question of intervening in a political controversy. I should just like to add that I regret very much that the right hon. Gentleman thought that I was conveying any sinister motive or imputation into what he said. It may well be that the right hon. Gentleman would have adopted a different course, but he might have adopted the right course. If I suggested he might have adopted the wrong course, perhaps I was wrong.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that he will endeavour, as Minister of Defence, to keep the professional heads of the Services as far as possible outside—in accordance with the Regulations—matters of high and controversial public policy which have to be debated in the House of Commons?

To the right hon. Gentleman's direct question I give an affirmative reply. It is desirable that high ranking officers—indeed, all those in the Services —should not embark on political controversy or intervene in such matters; but I am bound to say that I cannot see that the First Sea Lord did anything which can be regarded as improper.

After all, it is my responsibility. We have now had ten minutes on this matter. We shall have half an hour if we go on like this.

On a point of order. With great respect, Sir, all the supplementary questions that have occupied the time you have complained about been put by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). Is that fair?

All the answers have been by the Minister of Defence. I prefer to leave it at that.

On a point of order. The right hon. Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) distinctly said that we wanted not only a new Parliament but a new Speaker. Is that permitted. Sir?

I never heard it; and anyhow the noble Lord is entitled to his own opinion. It does not matter much to me. I think we had better get on now.

If, in conversation, I indicated that I thought it would be in the interests of the country that we should have a new Parliament which would involve a new Speaker, I apologise.

I thought the time had come when it would be much better to get on. We are going to debate this matter, and we had better debate it in due course. We have had Question Time going on far too much as a kind of irregular debate, and it might be continued as such. I therefore thought we had better stop it. Mr. Bartley.