280 RIFLE (N.A.T.O. DISCUSSIONS) (Hansard, 6 July 1951)
HC Deb 06 July 1951 vol 489 cc2669-73
The Minister of Defence (Mr. Shin-well)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to inform the House that since His Majesty's Government announced their decision to adopt a new rifle and ammunition of the .280 calibre they have been approached by other countries belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, who have asked that it should be the subject of a discussion at ministerial level. His Majesty's Government have replied that they would be very willing to enter into such discussions, and arrangements are being made to ensure that the discussions take place at an early date.

Captain Crookshank

We are much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for making this statement. Perhaps I should say that it will be given very careful consideration on this side of the House and that any further steps about it will be discussed through the usual channels in the light of the statements which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made yesterday.

Mr. Duncan Sandys

In view of the seriousness of taking a decision to go into production on a new type of weapon which is not standardised with the weapons of our Allies, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether his statement means that there have not already been ministerial consultations between the Governments concerned, or is this the first time that such talks are going to take place?

Mr. Shinwell

There have, in fact, been no ministerial conversations on this subject. The matter was dealt with by a joint military working party who made certain recommendations. Our Chiefs of Staff are associated with the working party and have made the recommendations to His Majesty's Government.

Mr. Sandys

Is not this another example once again of important decisions in the sphere of defence being taken at too low a level?

Mr. Shinwell

This, of course, is purely technical matter, and so it is regarded by my military advisers and the military advisers of other countries, but since the matter has been raised we have thought it right to respond to the suggestion that there should be ministerial discussions, and that is what we propose to do.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can the Minister give us an estimate of what this rifle is going to cost and who is going to make them? Further, can he tell us how far these rifles are likely to be used in deciding a modern war?

Mr. Shinwell

I think that question is slightly irrelevant to the answer I have given.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

And the cost?

Brigadier Head

In view of the agreement with all the Atlantic Pact Powers on the importance of standardisation, is there no machinery to ensure that, in such important matters as the design of a new rifle, there will be in every case full consultation at the highest level before such a far-reaching step is taken unilaterally?

Mr. Shinwell

I have mentioned this position regarding standardisation in the House before. It is not just as simple as some hon. Members imagine. As I ventured to reply to the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) when he put a question to me some weeks ago. it is easy to achieve standardisation if everybody else agrees with us or if we are ready to agree with everybody else, but if there are differences of view standardisation is not easy to achieve, even if there are ministerial discussions. I am bound to add, although I do not want to prejudge the issue of the rifle in these discussions, that all the technical experts agreed that this was the best weapon yet projected, and that is a consideration which must be present to all our minds.

Mr. H. Hynd

In view of the reluctance of the Opposition to adopt anything new, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the rifle used in the South African war may not necessarily be the last word in modern armaments?

Mr. Shinwell

I do not want to rebuke my hon. Friend behind me—far be it from me to rebuke anybody—but I must say to the House that I cannot believe that the question of the provision of a modern weapon is a party matter.

Mr. Martin Lindsay

Can the Minister of Defence give the House an assurance that he appreciates the vital necessity of having an adequate reserve of .303 rifles and ammunition for potential national Forces, including the Home Guard, before production starts with the .280, so that we do not get caught with some of one and some of the other?

Mr. Shinwell

I can assure the hon. Member that there is no difficulty in that regard. We have an ample stock of the 303 rifle.

Mr. Lindsay

And ammunition?

Mr. Shinwell

Ammunition comes and goes. It is in more or less constant production. As regards the Home Guard, when the Home Guard is formed, as it will be some day, there will be an ample stock of rifles for its use.

Mr. Lindsay

Have we adequate reserves of .303 ammunition?

Mr. Shinwell

Yes. It is not much use having the rifles unless we have the ammunition.

Mr. Lindsay

I was not sure about that.

Sir Herbert Williams

Have there not been considerable sales of rifles since the end of the last hostilities, and is the right hon. Gentleman quite certain that the reserve is now adequate? Further, can the right hon. Gentleman tell me what is "a working party"? It seems to me to be an absurd name for a committee.

Mr. H. Hynd

It is not the Conservative Party.

Mr. Shinwell

I am not responsible for the designation, which is part of the jargon in common use nowadays. It is a committee; I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. As regards the stock of rifles, I understand that the rifles are ample and that there will be no difficulty. We have had, of course, to dispose of a large number of rifles to friendly countries, including Commonwealth countries, which I think is the right thing to do.

Mr. Sandys

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to my question about two months ago. I do not know whether he remembers that I asked him then whether he would consider dealing with this matter at the ministerial level, and he said he would consider that. The other point which I wanted to raise is that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell us how much has already been spent on the development of this rifle, and how far we have got with production. Are we in production? Have we prototypes? What stage have we reached?

Mr. Shinwell

In regard to the first point, as the right hon. Gentleman will see, I am prepared to have discussions at ministerial level, and that has been arranged. This is a matter which has to be arranged, as I am not the only party concerned. As regards the number of rifles that have been produced of the new .280, some have been produced. I am not sure how many at this stage As to the cost of them—

Mr. Sandys

Are they in production?

Mr. Shinwell

We have not gone into actual production of the rifle on any scale. We have provided a few. I may say, for the benefit of hon. Members, that I shall be very happy to arrange a demonstration of the .280 rifle some day next week if hon. and gallant Members, and even right hon. Gentlemen, would care to accept my invitation.

Mr. H. Hynd

As targets?

Major Tufton Beamish

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on 25th April when he announced in the House that this new rifle was being introduced, it was only under cross-examination that he said that it would take some time until we had a sufficient quantity of the new weapon. [An HON. MEMBER: "Of course it will."] That is just my point. Was that not a considerable understatement? Is it not a great mistake to raise false hopes in the Army, who are anxious to have a new rifle, whether it is about new rifles, No. 1 dress, bedside lamps, or whatever it may be? However fast the right hon. Gentleman produces this excellent new rifle, will it not be a considerable number of years before there is a general issue of it?

Mr. Shinwell

If we go into large-scale production, we shall have fairly adequate supplies in the course of two years, not before then. We shall not have what we require under four, five or even six years. It depends upon how we can accelerate the rate of production.

Brigadier Head rose

Mr. Speaker

We have been on this subject for quite long enough.

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