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Home Secretary's Statement

Volume 148: debated on Tuesday 8 November 1921

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asked the Home Secretary whether the special branch of Scotland Yard, hitherto under the control of Sir Basil Thomson, K.C.B., has been abolished or reduced; whether any economy of public money is anticipated from this change; and, if so, what is the estimated amount per year?

In putting this question, may I be permitted to say that I gave notice of it before the Debate of last week, and I mean no discourtesy to the right hon. Gentleman.

The Department has not been abolished and no reduction has yet taken place. The question of possible reductions in expenditure is being considered.

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that the state of the national finances justifies the keeping of this Department at war strength?

( by Private Notice)

asked the Home Secretary whether he proposes to make any statement with regard to the appointment of Sir Joseph Byrne and the retirement of Sir Basil Thomson?

Yes; with your permission, Sir, and the permission of the House, I should like to make a statement on one or two small points that have arisen with regard to the appointment of Sir Joseph Byrne and the resignation of Sir Basil Thomson. First of all, dealing with the statement made in the Press by Sir Basil Thomson, there are two points, and so far as I can see only two points to which I need refer. The first is that Sir Basil Thomson has said that on the appointment of General Horwood as Chief Commissioner he at once wrote to me and explained that, having regard to his opinion of General Horwood, he would feel obliged to resign if General Horwood was appointed. I may say that such a statement was made by him to me, but having regard to the nature of it, and that it came from an Assistant Commissioner, and that it dealt with matters on which I had no doubt Sir Basil Thomson felt very strongly, and perhaps with some pain, I felt that I ought to treat it as absolutely confidential, and had Sir Basil Thomson not mentioned it I should not have done so. The other point is one with regard to the position of Sir Basil Thomson himself. He claims that he always was independent. May I remind the House that there has never been any question about Sir Basil Thomson's independence in so far as the collection of information was concerned, foreign and home, and his reports to the Cabinet? But there his independence ended. Undoubtedly, however, Sir Basil Thomson has persuaded himself that that state of independence extended to the whole of his work. Sir Basil Thomson himself confirms me in that statement.

In November last year—exactly a year ago to-day—there was a meeting at the Home Office at which the whole position was thrashed out, and it was finally decided, what, in fact, was the position as between Sir Basil Thomson and General Horwood. A day or two after I had drawn up a statement of what exactly was settled at that meeting. A copy of that statement was sent both to Sir Basil Thomson and General Horwood and accepted by both of them without demur. I think the shortest and best way is for me to read that statement now:
"As the result of a discussion with the Commissioner and Sir Basil Thomson in the Home Office on 8th November, 1920, I "—
that is myself—
"approve the following arrangements:
  • (1) The steps taken by Sir Basil Thomson for the protection of the King, the Royal Family, Ministers, and other public persons should have the approval of the Commissioner. The Commissioner should be fully informed beforehand (except in an emergency) of any change in the direction either of additional protection or of the relaxation of the precautions.
  • (2) The Commissioner should be kept fully informed of what the officers of the special branch are doing in the Metropolitan area.
  • (3) The Commissioner should be kept generally informed of the distribution and the work of the special branch officers outside the Metropolitan police district.
  • In order to keep the Commissioner informed on these points, and to consult him on matters requiring his consent, Sir Basil Thomson will call and see the Commissioner every Wednesday morning at 11.30 (or such other time as may be arranged). He will supply the Commissioner with early copies of his weekly reports, and will supply him at once with any information of importance which comes to his knowledge affecting the work of the Metropolitan police. The information supplied verbally will be supplemented by full written communications when the circumstances so demand."
    Now, Sir, there follows what sets out the exact position with regard to independence—
    "In collecting information and preparing reports for the Government on the action of Bolsheviks. Sinn Feiners, etc., Sir Basil Thomson will act independently in his capacity of Director of intelligence. His intelligence officers (other than members of the Metropolitan police) and his staff of clerks and typists will he appointed by him, and will be under his own control. The Metropolitan police officers of the special branch will be under Sir Basil Thomson to the same extent as police officers in other branches are under the control of the other Assistant Commissioners. The supreme disciplinary authority is the Commissioner."
    That is the statement which absolutely governs the whole of the relations as they ought to have been. I think I have put the House into possession of the best information I possess with regard to the arrangements then made. As I reminded the House, the position has been that, while Sir Basil Thomson was independent with regard to the collection of information and reports to the Cabinet based upon that information, the moment executive action was required upon that information he became again, as Assistant Commissioner, subject to the control of the Commissioner.

    There were two points raised in the Debate as to one of which I was ignorant, and as to the other I was misinformed, and I desire to put the House in the possession of the true facts and give my explanation. The hon. Member for Bournemouth (Lieut.-Colonel Croft) asked me when I was speaking
    "How came it about that General Byrne went to Sir Basil Thomson's office at the beginning of this week, and that those who called to see Sir Basil Thomson were told that General Byrne, his successor, was in his office, and was functioning?"
    and my reply was
    "I cannot possibly say."
    That was a complete surprise to me. I had no information or knowledge whatever that General Byrne had been functioning, or of the document subsequently brought to my notice, namely, the office regulation which had been issued. I regret it, because clearly, had I known of the issue of that document, it would have been apparent to me that any Member of the House might fairly and properly doubt my statement that General Byrne had been offered, but had not yet accepted, the position. I quite appreciate that the existence of that document made it perfectly clear that any Member could say "This is an astonishing statement—to say that there is an offer to General Byrne which has not been accepted." I at once asked General Horwood to give me an explanation and he has given me that explanation in writing, and again I think the best thing I can do is to read General Horwood's explanation to the House, because the only explanation I can offer is General Horwood's:
    "The circumstances in which this Regulation No. 31 was issued were as follows:
    The appointment of Assistant Commissioner had been offered to Sir Joseph Byrne, but, pending a decision being arrived at regarding his pay and pension, he had not accepted."
    That was the reason for delay. I did not want to go into those domestic and private details, but Sir Joseph Byrne refused to accept until he was satisfied with the provision made by the Treasury for his pay and pension. General Byrne, like Sir Basil Thomson, has had varied service, and there was bound to be difficulty about his pension afterwards, unless it was definitely settled before he accepted office. I had told General Byrne about the trouble I had myself to get Sir Basil Thomson's pension arranged. Had I known, I should have told the House that actually on Thursday morning the Home Office were pressing Sir Joseph Byrne to say definitely, one way or the other, whether he would accept. They told him on Thursday morning what the Treasury proposal was, and Sir Joseph Byrne asked for more time to consider his position. That, although I did not know it, was actually the position. General Horwood's letter continues:
    "It was necessary that the work of the branch should be continued without any hiatus. At my request Sir Joseph Byrne came to the office, and, accompanied by one of my officials, went over to the special branch in order to get some insight into the work of the department of which, if he accepted your offer, he would assume control from 1st December.
    I asked him to deal, on my behalf, with matters of routine, and my idea was that by doing so, he would learn the duties and be able by the let December to assume responsibility under me. It was necessary that some official communication should be made to the office as to his position, and accordingly the Office Regulation in question was issued.
    You will recollect that when I asked you about the publication in Police Orders of the appointment of Sir Joseph Byrne as Assistant Commissioner you told me that nothing must appear in Police Orders until:
  • i. Sir Joseph Byrne had accepted your offer.
  • ii. The appointment had been approved by His Majesty.
  • I therefore kept all reference to the post of Assistant Commissioner out of the draft Regulation."
    That is quite true. I had heard that it was intended to put into the Police Orders the appointment of Sir Joseph Byrne, and I stopped it for those reasons. The explanation continues.
    "The Regulation, like all other Office Regulations, was issued for the information of the office only; and I am unable to say by what process this confidential document reached the Press."
    That is General Horwood's explanation, and having had the question raised, and not at the time having been able to deal with it, I have now put the House into possession of the only explanation I have to offer the House, namely, that of General Horwood.

    The next point was not a point of very great importance, I do not suppose, but still I was wrong. The hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir S. Hoare) raised a point about the communication to the Press, and I said that no communication to the Press was made to the best of my knowledge, either from the Home Office or Scotland Yard. At that time the knowledge I possessed was this. We were being besieged by gentlemen of the Press in order to find out whether Sir Joseph Byrne had been appointed or not, and I had given definite instructions to the Home Office that the answer was to be "Nothing is yet settled," and I had been assured that my instructions had been carried out. It is upon that I made the answer which I gave to the hon. Member for Chelsea. I have made further inquiry about that, because a quotation from the Press which I had not seen, was shown to me which purported to be an official communication, and I made inquiry from General Horwood, who replied as follows:
    "The circumstances in which the Press communiqué was issued on Tuesday last were that the fact that Sir Joseph Byrne was in the office had become known to the Press on Tuesday morning, and it was being stated that he had actually been appointed as Assistant Commissioner.
    It became necessary, therefore, that some communication should be made to the numerous representatives of the Press who call many times a day at my office, and I authorised my private sceretary to issue a statement to the effect that Sir Joseph Byrne, pending confirmation of his appointment, was acting on my behalf in the Special Branch.
    I knew that the Home Office was informing representatives of the Press that the appointment had not then been settled, and I did not inform you of this communication to the Press, any more than I do other communications made every day to Press representatives calling at New Scotland Yard."
    I apologise to the hon. Member and to the House for not having that information, and I hope the House will acquit me of having done anything intentionally to mislead the House. Those are the statements which I desire to make, and which I think it was necessary to make. in order to put those matters right. I think I have made it perfectly clear. I have given the whole of the information I possibly can give to enable hon. Members to form a decision as to whether in fact Sir Basil Thomson did resign because he could not possibly continue to work with General Horwood, he having persuaded himself that his true position was something which it was not; and in consequence a change had to be made, which change involved the decision of Sir Basil Thomson himself that he would resign. That is the statement which I have to make.

    There are two 'mints that I would like to have cleared up. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that the impression he left on the House—I speak personally, and I am in the memory of the House—was that Sir Joseph Byrne voluntarily came to him and said that he could not go on in consequence of the criticisms levelled at him in this House? I speak in the recollection of the House. That was the impression left on my mind.

    On a point of Order. May I be allowed to ask if this is a, Debate, or a reply to a question?

    It is not the occasion for a Debate, but the hon. and gallant Member is entitled to put a further question.

    I propose to put two questions. I would ask my right hon. Friend whether it is not a fact that he personally telephoned to Sir Joseph Byrne to come over and see him here, and whether it was not in consequence of that interview that Sir Joseph Byrne declined the appointment?

    Secondly, I would ask my right hon. Friend whether the House is to understand that an offer was made to an officer and that, in spite of the fact that the head of the Department did not know whether he would accept it or not, he was put in charge of one of the most confidential offices in this country and was allowed to work there for a certain period, though the head of the Department was unaware whether he would remain or not?

    It is impossible for me to say what impression I gave to the House. I certainly did not intend to leave any impression one way or the other in regard to that matter. The best way is to tell the House exactly what happened. Immediately Questions were over, and I had seen the attitude, and had heard what was said, and attention had been drawn to the answer in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and it had been read, I at once telephoned to Sir Joseph Byrne. I have been in close touch with Sir Joseph for two years. I told him that I did not wish to speak to him as Home Secretary at all, but as his personal friend. I said, "You probably will not know what has taken place unless I tell you." I told him exactly what had taken place, and I said, "It is for you to consider whether in face of that you can possibly accept the position." That is exactly what happened. With regard to the other point, I am sure the hon. Member will recollect that in his statement General Horwood said that he wanted Sir Joseph to deal with routine work, and there was no chance of his obtaining any information of a really secret character, or of learning anything that could do harm if he did not accept the position.

    How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the statement which he made in the House on Thursday last that

    "eventually it turned out that for months and months on end he (Sir Basil Thomson) never would go near the Commissioner, or tell the Commissioner certain things. That was making a pitiable spectacle of the Commissioner, and in June of this year, or a little earlier, I began to ask myself whether it was really possible for this to continue.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1921; cols. 2054–5, Vol. 147.]
    How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile that statement with the statement of Sir Basil Thomson in the paper of yesterday that he reported regularly once a week up to July to the Commissioner?

    I may have been mistaken as to the month, but as to the broad fact I was perfectly right. Sir Basil Thomson for a time reported in accordance with that arrangement to which he definitely agreed, and then, as he has said himself, he deliberately and definitely stopped.

    Is it a fact that a Committee of Inquiry was appointed, that at it General Horwood made several inaccurate statements about Sir Basil Thomson's Department without Sir Basil's knowledge, and does he regard that as the loyal act of a chief to a very distinguished colleague?

    How comes it that all these confidential conversations and documents are made known to certain Members of the House, and what is the use of a confidential Department when practically the whole of the information is available for debate here?

    I have no means of knowing. The Committee was appointed by the Cabinet. I, of course, had no control over the decisions of the Committee. I had a Memorandum from General Horwood which I at once forwarded to Sir Basil Thomson, and I got a Memorandum from him in return. These two were at the disposal of the Committee if the Committee desired them, but I think by that time the Committee had actually made up their minds. I knew nothing of the Committee's procedure until I got their Report, and the moment I got it I sent to Sir Basil Thomson an extract of the part relating to his work.

    On a point of Order. I would like to ask how long this Debate is going to continue on a private Member's question?

    I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, "the contradictory statements made by the Home Secretary on Sir Joseph Byrne's appointment."

    I am sorry, but I cannot accept this Motion. It is not definite, and, as to the rest of it, it is the same matter on which we had a Debate last Thursday.