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Oral Answers to Questions — Hydrogen Bomb Tests (Shipping)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th April 1957.

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Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne 12:00 am, 16th April 1957

asked the Prime Minister what steps he will take to restrain peaceful shipping sailing the high seas from entering specific areas of the high seas during the period of the forthcoming hydrogen bomb tests; to what extent he is prepared to use force in exercising such restraint; for how long after the last test the prohibition will be enforced; and what forces will be charged with this task.

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

Public warning has been given that a defined area is to be considered dangerous to shipping from 1st March to 1st August, 1957. Early warning will be given if it should become necessary to extend the latter date. Aircraft of the task force conducting the operation will search within the area for any vessel which might inadvertently have entered it and be in danger. If any such vessel is sighted warning leaflets in several languages will be dropped advising the vessel to leave the danger area at once.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

I acknowledge the Prime Minister's courtesy in answering this Question himself instead of leaving it to the Minister of Supply, but may I point out that the Question asks what the Government's attitude would be in the event of vessels—not inadvertently, but in exercise of their right to navigate freely upon the high seas—nevertheless insisting upon entering the warned-off area? Do the Government propose to use force to prevent them?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

This is a hypothetical question. I hope that nobody will be foolish enough to ignore this advice.

Photo of Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas , Leicester North East

Does the Prime Minister claim that under international law he is entitled to exclude ships sailing the high seas from going over this area?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

I do not think that I am really an expert in international law any more than in silence, but if the hon. and learned Gentleman will put down that question I will try to answer it.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

The Prime Minister must have given some consideration to the important hypothetical question put by my hon. Friend. What are the Government going to do if vessels get into this area?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

I have given consideration to that question, but I am entitled to ask for notice of a specific question on international law— as I do.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

It is not a hypothetical question. Is it not the precise effect of Question No. 54, to which I should like an answer?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

I still say that I hope nobody will be foolish enough to ignore this advice.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

Will the Prime Minister do the House the courtesy of bringing his mind to bear upon the question that he is asked? Question No. 54 asks whether he has taken, or proposes to take, the advisory opinion of the International Court at The Hague as to how far is it proper, under international law, to interfere in this way with the free navigation of the seas by making them dangerous to peaceful shipping.

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

I cannot answer Question No. 54 until the hon. Member asks it.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

asked the Prime Minister what steps he has taken to obtain an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice at The Hague respecting the propriety under international law of rendering large areas of the high seas for substantial periods dangerous to peaceful shipping sailing the high seas upon its lawful occasions.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

Are we to infer from the Prime Minister's Answer that the Government took no steps to obtain such an opinion because they believed it to be unnecessary and believed that they are entitled to do this? Would it then be right to infer that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government any nation in the world can, at any time, at its own option and without any breach of international law, do anything for its own purposes anywhere upon the high seas?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

That would be a wrong inference. The Question asked what steps had been taken to obtain an advisory opinion, to which I replied, "None". The reason is that it is not open to individual States to seek advisory opinions of the International Court.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

asked the Prime Minister with what foreign countries Her Majesty's Government have concluded agreements by which ships of those countries will be restrained from sailing upon any part of the high seas during any period in respect of which Her Majesty's Government have notified their intention to conduct experimental tests of hydrogen, bomb explosions.

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

None, Sir. The temporary use of areas outside territorial waters for gunnery or bombing practice has, as such, never been considered a violation of the principle of freedom of navigation on the high seas and hence no special agreement is called for. The announcement of a temporary danger area on the high seas is made in the interests of safety. In choosing the site for the tests Her Majesty's Government pay full attention to the importance of avoiding interference with regular shipping routes.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

Is the net effect of the Prime Minister's Answers to the last few questions that Her Majesty's Government consider that they are within their rights under international law in doing this without obtaining an advisory opinion, and that they have made no agreement with any other State which might give them any right which might be doubtful? Does it further follow that any other State would be entitled at any time to do the same thing?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman prepared his supplementary question before he heard my original Answer. We do not consider that we are in any breach of international law and, as I say, the temporary use of an area outside territorial waters for gunnery and bombing practice has never been considered a violation of the principle of the freedom of navigation on the high seas.

Photo of Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas Mr Lynn Ungoed-Thomas , Leicester North East

Does not the Prime Minister recognise that there is a marked difference between an occasional bombing practice on the high seas and a hydrogen bomb test which will pollute vast areas for a considerable period? Secondly, do I understand from his Answer that the right hon. Gentleman now holds that under international law he is entitled to exclude shipping from the high seas? Has he in fact received advice to that effect?

Photo of Mr Harold Macmillan Mr Harold Macmillan , Bromley

No, Sir, I do not dispute anything except to the extent of what I have said. Perhaps in the debate either today or tomorrow the hon. and learned Gentleman will explain exactly what is the point of view of his own Front Bench on the matter.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Should I be in order in claiming leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to call attention to the intention of Her Majesty's Government, without obtaining any authority or without agreement with other States, to proceed to make experiments which would be dangerous not merely to peaceful shipping but to humanity and the world at large?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Member should rightly bring his Motion to the Table, but I can inform him, if he will permit it—I think it will save time—that I cannot accept such a Motion as coming within the terms of Standing Order No. 9. It is not urgent, in the sense that there are ample opportunities for debating it, and I do not see that it could possibly be brought within the four corners of the Standing Order.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

With respect, is this not clearly a matter of administrative action and not one of legislation? On that account is it not urgent, in that the Government are proceeding with activities now? Is it not, therefore, something which, if we are to restrain it, can be restrained only by urgent interference by this House?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I think that it could be debated this afternoon during the defence debate.