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European Defence Community (British And Usa Commitments)

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 15 April 1954

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The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

61.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he will now inform the House of the precise proposals made by Her Majesty's Government to the European Defence Community Governments for further military commitments by this country on the continent of Europe; and what further commitments have been proposed or undertaken by the United States of America.

59.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is yet in a position to make a statement regarding a British contribution to a European army.

May I first ask a question on a point of order? These Questions were on the Paper on Tuesday. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, with your leave, Mr. Speaker, put a Private Notice Question which was answered by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. I have no doubt that it was generally convenient for the House that the statement about the additional British contribution to E.D.C. should be made yesterday, but I think that a good many hon. Members had previously understood that if Questions on the same subject were already on the Paper that normally ruled out a Private Notice Question. Would you be good enough to give your Ruling and to indicate whether, in future, there will be some departure in certain cases?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter. When the Leader of the Opposition yesterday submitted his Private Notice Question I had observed the Question for today standing in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher). My first reaction was that that would rule out the possibility of the Leader of the Opposition asking his Question, but on reading the hon. Member's Question I found that its contents, though similar, were not identical with the Question put down by the Leader of the Opposition. The hon. Member is asking for precise proposals made by Her Majesty's Government for further military commitments by this country, and it struck me that the Leader of the Opposition was asking about something different from proposals. He was asking for the terms of an Agreement which it was common knowledge had been made.

As the hon. Member will understand, a proposal is like an offer which, if accepted, becomes a contract. It struck me that the subject matter of the Question by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday, dealing, as it did, with a concluded Agreement, was different in substance from the Question of the hon. Member which deals with proposals. On this ground I allowed the Leader of the Opposition to ask his Question, but the rule remains unchanged.

May I say that I am not in any sense complaining, Sir. I think that the whole House will be most obliged to you for what you have said and for clarifying the position. I am sure it will be of use on future occasions.

The answer to the two Questions is as follows: I refer the hon. Members to my right hon. Friend's statement in the House yesterday, and to the reply which he gave to a supplementary question by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition.

Now that we have had an opportunity to consider the statement made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether we may assume that in the event of the United States Government not undertaking to make a similar and comparable commitment to leave on the Continent of Europe American forces of comparable size and for the same length of time, in association with E.D.C., Her Majesty's Government will be free to reconsider the commitment which they have undertaken?

My right hon. Friend made it plain yesterday that the commitment was related to N.A.T.O. The undertaking which is given is to place at the disposal of and under the command of an E.D.C. corps a British armoured division so long as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe considers that to be a necessary arrangement. That is, of course, without regard to any outside commitments or further commitments which the United States Government may undertake.

Has the hon. Gentleman forgotten that the United Nations organisation is in existence and is liable to die unless it is used? Will he refrain from entering into commitments either in Europe or with the United States unless it is done through the United Nations, which was established for that purpose?

The commitment, as I have already informed the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher), is under N.A.T.O., and, as I think the whole House accepts, there is nothing inconsistent or incompatible whatsoever between N.A.T.O. and any of the defence arrangements to which Her Majesty's Government belong or which they support in Europe or anywhere else, or the United Nations organisation.

It is past 12 o'clock, and I am forbidden by the Order of the House to take Questions after 12 o'clock.

On a point of order. Do I understand, Mr. Speaker, that you have now given a Ruling which seems to depart from previous practice in this House, which is that once a Question has been taken before the time of conclusion of Questions it is in order for supplementary questions to be continued after that hour? That appears to me to have been the common practice in the House in the past.

We are working under a special Order passed by the House yesterday with regard to today's proceedings, which says that no Questions shall be taken after 12 o'clock. Although I allow a little latitude for a few seconds this way or that, I feel bound, after the Order of the House, not to continue further and thus deduct from the time which is open to Private Members for their Adjournment Motion debates.