Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd March 1949.

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Photo of Mr Charles Byers Mr Charles Byers , Dorset Northern 12:00 am, 3rd March 1949

I am sure the House has enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Horn-church (Mr. Bing). I certainly have, but, if the House will forgive me, I shall return to defence. I say in passing that it will probably be my view tonight that it is right to vote against the Motion, although that will not in any way commit me to the support of past or future Conservative defence policy. I suggest that 50 Members opposite, if they voted against the Government tonight, would not endanger the life of the Government, but they might get the Government to act. They have the majority and it lies with them to take the initiative.

I do not think that any hon. Member who takes defence seriously can be satisfied with this Defence White Paper. I am sure that hon. Members opposite could not approve in their own hearts, if they were free of the Whips, the sort of thing which has been given to us in this White Paper. It does not tell us very much, but what it does tell us causes me alarm, and even despondency, and I do not think that the situation was improved, if I may say so with respect, by the Minister merely repeating the White Paper two or three times in his speech this afternoon, for the House learned nothing new.

Is it not possible now to give us more information? I realise the interests of security, but in the White Papers and Estimates we have been given far less information than potential enemies of this country must have in their possession today. Even in the war, we used regularly to go through lists and take things off the secret list. We used to give information, not information which would be of value to the enemy, but information which would assist the people of the country to make up their minds that things were going right, instead of going wrong. The Minister of Defence is up against this problem: he will have to give more information if he wishes to create confidence in the country. I agree with the criticisms which have been made that this White Paper does not show an adequate plan. It does not show what are the real intentions of the Ministry of Defence or of the Departments themselves.

I and my colleagues have regularly called for this defence plan for the last 2½ years. The House will recall that I have said that we have spent far too much time discussing matters like conscription, important as they are, instead of getting down to a basic plan for national and collective defence. There is this vast expenditure, which I am not criticising. The Government will have to spend money on our defence today. Inevitably large numbers of men are being tied up, but unless the Government have a proper plan they will not marry up the various factors and ensure real value for money. The real effort today seems to be on training the individual soldier instead of putting into the field operationally efficient formations. There was not one reference by the Minister of Defence today, nor was there in the White Paper so far as I could see, to the numbers of the formations which we have at our command, or any suggestion as to their operational efficiency.

How many formations have we got, how many divisions? The time has come when we should be given some indication, because indications are, as the right hon. Gentleman said, being given in the Press. Is the figure two divisions? Is it three divisions? If it is three divisions does the number include Colonial divisions? Does it include parachute divisions? Is there an armoured division? There was no inkling of this in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. What was the point of his standing at that Box for an hour without giving us some information. We knew in 1939 how many divisions we had. We are to have 391,000 men in the Army on 31st March, 1950. If the planning figure for a division is 30,000 to 40,000, how many divisions are we to have by March, 1950? Can we be given some answer by the Prime Minister?

Apart from the number of divisions or brigades, what is the state of their operational efficiency? One never hears now of divisional exercises being carried out. Are they being carried out? Are corps exercises being carried out? Perhaps that is kept secret. If so, can we be told that it is to be kept secret, because from reading the Press and going around the country the indication I get is that no formation exercises are taking place.

I do not intend to criticise the total numbers of men in the Armed Forces. The number of men required is governed by the commitments which have to he met. But I suggest that there are certain savings which could be made in the Army, and possibly, in certain cases, in the Royal Air Force, not only without affecting the efficiency of the Armed Forces but with advantage to their efficiency. I shall refer first to the suggestion which has been made on occasion of having a civilian administrative corps to do the fatigue routine administration duties of the Armed Forces. I believe a corps of that kind of about 20,000 could be provided which would enable the soldiers to get on with their proper task. Such a corps might cost £6,000,000 or £7,000,000. Has this proposal been seriously considered by the Ministry of Defence? If so, do they approve of it? I cannot see how they can disapprove of it, because it would help the efficiency of the Armed Forces. If they approve, what has the Treasury to say about the proposal? Is the Minister tackling the Treasury about it?

I should like to go further than the right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley). The time has now come when we should ask the sister nations of the British Commonwealth to undertake some of the overseas garrisoning and routine duties which now fall upon this country. I do not believe that that is too much to ask. After all, we in this country cannot go on making ourselves responsible for all these garrisons without receiving some help and assistance from other members of the British Commonwealth, who are desperately interested in the preservation of peace in parts of the Empire and in other parts of the world. I can see no reason why we should not have Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African troops in Trieste, in Austria—