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Western Union (Council Meeting)

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 20 April 1950

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I gather that the Minister of Defence wishes to make a statement, so may I ask him whether he will make one, on the work of the eighth meeting of the Consultative Council of the Brussels Treaty.

In the absence of the Foreign Secretary I had the honour to represent His Majesty's Government at the Eighth Meeting of the Brussels Treaty Consultative Council held in Brussels on 16th and 17th April. I was supported by my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Minister of State for Economic Affairs.

The work of the Council was of two kinds differing in character but serving a common objective. The Council reviewed progress in the social and cultural fields and took note of the useful, if unspectacular, work being done in such matters as social security, public health, assistance, war pensions and the rehabilitation of the disabled.

Two conventions between the Five Powers on Frontier Workers and on Student Employees respectively were also signed at Brussels. Texts of these will be made available to the House very shortly. If I stress this aspect of the Council's work at the outset it is because it should be clearly understood, both in and outside this House, that His Majesty's Government attach great importance to these activities of Western Union, which is a constructive and essentially pacific conception and not merely a military alliance.

On the defence side, the Council was required to consider the practical, and especially the financial, implications of some of the plans developed by the Military Committee and in our approach to the problem we had it fully in mind that the maintenance of economic stability was a first priority in the defence of the Western world.

The specific projects before the Council included the preparation of headquarters, the installation of signal communications. the development of certain airfields and air navigational aids; such works are now collectively known as "infrastructure," that is to say the material backing to enable the higher command to function and forces to be deployed.

The carrying out of necessary work under these heads raises novel problems, partly because the degree of common interest varies and partly because the completed work may in some cases contribute, directly or indirectly, to the economic benefit of the country in which the work is sited. A close scrutiny by the military and financial experts of the works proposed was therefore plainly called for. This scrutiny was begun at Brussels and is now being completed.

I was able on behalf of His Majesty's Government to make it clear that we accept the principle that this country must be prepared to make a contribution towards the cost of such works as are clearly shown to be of common advantage to the Five Powers and to be of high military priority. We regard this principle, which was accepted by all at the meeting, as vital.

On behalf of His Majesty's Government I had, however, to make plain to our Allies that any such contribution could only be found at the expense of some other projected expenditure in our current defence budget. The House will appreciate that very careful examination of relative priorities by my Service colleagues and myself will be called for to establish where any cuts should fall since it is, I am convinced, most undesirable to reduce the sums already earmarked for production. I cannot at this stage be precise as to the nature of the adjustments that may be required until the review of the infrastructure already referred to has been completed.

In further discussion of defence problems, the Council took steps to ensure that there was no duplication in the defence planning under the Brussels Treaty with the work being done under the North Atlantic Treaty. To this end full information will be made available to the Standing Group in Washington with an invitation that that body should propose any urgently desirable modifications of existing Western Union plans. Before the meeting closed, the United States Ambassador in London, who is, of course, the Head of the American Committee for Co-ordinating Military Assistance to Europe, was fully informed of the Council's action.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will not mind my saying that we do not feel much wiser for what we have heard. We will study it with great attention and endeavour to see what meaning, if any, can be extracted from it. May I ask him whether he would consider, on the first page of his statement, altering the word "merely" —" not merely a military alliance "—to "not only a military alliance," because his statement deals almost entirely with military matters. "Merely" seems, I will not say a disparaging, but an inadequate term to use. As to this new word with which he has dignified our language, but which perhaps was imposed upon him internationally, I can only say that we must have full opportunity to consider it and to consult the dictionary.

As regards the first part of the supplementary question addressed to me by the right hon. Gentleman, I have only to say that we wish to make it abundantly clear that the conception underlying the Western Union Defence Organisation and the Brussels Treaty in particular is not merely a military one but has regard to social considerations, and it was for that purpose that I mentioned the matter. I thought that the House should be informed of that aspect of the Brussels Treaty Organisation, and I cannot understand why anyone in the House should cavil at it. As regards the term I used about the common defence service, I thought that this might add to the right hon. Gentleman's vocabulary, which, I am aware, is already wide, but it will do him no harm to be aware of another word, even though it is of international origin.

Will the Minister of Defence bear in mind that we shall never make a reality of Western defence just through plans or production or even " infrastructural" defence, but that we shall only do so by the creation of well-prepared and up-to-date defence forces; and will he devote his own mind and that of our Allies to that as a matter of urgency?

We are of course concerned with the preparation of plans upon which alone we can furnish the adequate defence force which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has mentioned. We are at one in that regard. I would point out to the House that this statement which I have just made is not entirely devoid of detail. I have furnished such details as can be provided relating to the conference which has just been held. There are specific projects in hand. These are the common service defence projects which naturally require financial backing, but there is a further most vital consideration, namely, that we have now under consideration the desirability—though naturally our plans are by no means complete—of co-ordinating, or perhaps I had better use another term, associating the Brussels Treaty Defence Organisation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Can the Minister of Defence tell us when we are likely to know what forces Western Union are to dispose of and what our contribution is expected to be?