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Secret Session

Volume 363: debated on Tuesday 30 July 1940

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.58 p.m.

A week ago the Government were led to believe that there was a desire in the House to have a Debate about foreign affairs, and that it was the wish of the House for it to take place in secret, so that Members of all parties could say what they really felt about foreign countries without any danger of adding to the number of those countries with which we are at present at war. It is always the desire and also the duty of the Government, so far as possible, to meet the wishes of the House, and arrangements were accordingly made for this afternoon. However, it appears that some of the newspapers prefer that the Debate should take place in public, and we are assured that secrecy is undemocratic, especially in times of war, that it would be wrong for Members of Parliament to have privileges in matters of information not enjoyed by the whole mass of the nation, and that the Government should take the nation and the enemy fully into their confidence and let the whole world see plainly exactly how and where they stand in relation to all other countries in the present critical juncture. These arguments, or others like them, seem to have made an impression in various quarters of the House, and the Government are now in the embarrassing position of a servant receiving contradictory orders from those whom their only desire is to serve. We therefore have found means to give the House an opportunity of expressing by Debate and Division, the opinion whether the Debate should be secret or public. Also we have arranged that this preliminary Debate can itself take place under conditions of the fullest publicity. I conclude by moving,

"That the remainder of this day's Sitting be a Secret Session and that strangers be ordered to withdraw."
This is a debatable Motion. The Government will not attempt to influence the opinion of the House on the issue. Unless provoked, we shall take no part in the discussion, and Ministers will take no part in the Division, which will be left to the free vote of the House. After that matter has been decided, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will, at any point in the Debate that may be convenient, make his statement, either in public or in private, as the House may have decided. He has already, I believe, taken the precaution of preparing two speeches, both, I am sure, excellent, but one somewhat longer than the other.

4.2 p.m.

My hostility to this Motion has already been almost disarmed by the most witty and eloquent speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but despite the cries of "Divide," which proceed from some of my hon. Friends, I do suggest to the House that a question of some constitutional importance is involved in this issue between secret and open Sessions, and I do not think it is a question which can be disposed of without some form of Debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "For how long?"] That depends upon the character of the Debate and how many people wish to express their opinions on one side or the other. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear by his speech that in its genesis this proposal for a Secret Session did not proceed from the Government. Indeed, the Lord Privy Seal in his answers to Questions last week explained that it was not the Government's desire to express any opinion upon the subject, but, he said, there had been expressed in various quarters of the House what he regarded as a majority opinion in favour of a Secret Session. I submit with great respect to the House, whose Members, or at any rate the majority of its Members, I wish to convince, and none of whom I wish to offend, that this is, as I have said, a matter of great importance and that it should be quite clear, if the Debate is to be held in secret, that there is a majority in favour of holding it in secret.

May I, in the first instance, on the general principle of Secret Sessions, recall to the memory of the House this fact? In the whole of the last war, from 1914 to 1918, when the circumstances on many occasions—as, for example, in March, 1918, or earlier—were just as serious as they are to-day, only seven Secret Sessions were held, whereas in this Parliament we have already held five, and if there is one to-day, it will be the sixth. However unpopular this view may be in the House, I feel bound to give voice to it, because it is certainly held outside, that Secret Sessions are a drag on the formation of public opinion. If the whole House were against me on that point, I should still make that statement, because it seems to me self-evident that the Press and the public properly base their opinion directly on the arguments adduced and the facts disclosed in Debate in this House. Therefore, it is unfair to the Press and the public to hold Secret Sessions save in exceptional circumstances. I would also like to say, if it is not impertinent, that both those bodies—if I may so term them—namely, public opinion and the Press, have, on the whole, behaved exceptionally well in this war. There has been no division of opinion between the public outside and the Press outside and this House, on any question of principle, and I think we owe it to the Press and the public to say so.

I am now about to say something which may provoke interruption, but which, nevertheless, I believe to be true. This House is not a sort of Sanhedrin or a collection of notables. It derives its authority from, and owes its authority to, the representation of the people. In those circumstances, I maintain, on the question of principle, that Secret Sessions can be justified only in the most exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances clearly arise on occasions when, for example, we are discussing questions of defence. Obviously there are occasions when defence should be discussed in private. For example, if it were found necessary in the course of the war to remove two or three high officers from positions in the Army or the Navy and if it would, obviously, be impracticable and impolitic to discuss the matter in public, then there should be a Secret Session. I see quite clearly, as an old Member of the House, that I have not the House on my side in this matter, but I say clearly, and I shall continue to assert with the greatest confidence, that Secret Sessions should be very much the exception rather than the rule, and I claim that public opinion outside and nearly all the Press hold that view very strongly.

Some hon. Members asked how long this Debate would last, and I wish to set an example by being as succinct as possible, but I would ask the House to consider for a moment what are the circumstances which justify a Secret Session in the opinion of this mysterious majority—and I am not seeking to controvert what was said by my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal—which is supposed to exist in the House and was, no doubt, represented by those who shouted "Divide" when I rose to speak. What are the reasons which in their opinion would justify us in holding this particular Debate in secret? Surely this is not the time and not the occasion for giving even the suggestion of secret diplomacy. At one time we were told by opponents of the late Government and by others that one of the things which was doing this country harm, was secret diplomacy. Such a charge would be ridiculous if brought against us to-day, and yet it is bound to be brought against us, if we discuss foreign affairs in secret.

There is another matter which is, I think, of some importance, though my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his most charming speech indicated, if I may say so without impertinence, that the whole question was not of great moment. I should have thought there is a real danger at the present time, with the fantastic and wicked lies and propaganda which are being used on the part of certain enemy countries, that it would be suggested, particularly after what happened a fortnight ago—ridiculous as that suggestion would be—that we intended in some mysterious way to discuss in our Secret Session what the peace terms to Hitler would be. If any hon. Member is prepared to deny that, and to say that there is no chance that Dr. Goebbels would do any such thing; if any hon. Member is prepared to say that he knows Dr. Goebbels better than I do, and that Dr. Goebbels would never make such a suggestion, let him get up and say so.

I do not wish to anticipate the course of the subsequent Debate. It would be very wrong, on this Motion, to do so. But I do suggest—in fact, it is well known—that the two main reasons which have actuated the majority who are said to have asked for this Secret Session, are that they wish to discuss our diplomatic and political relationships with two great countries, one of them in Europe and the other in Asia, and they think, because that relationship is difficult and delicate, at the present time, it would, therefore, be better to discuss it in secret. I ask the House, in all honesty, is that really so? Are we likely to have better relationships with these countries as a result of discussing those relationships in private? I have heard certain arguments used which, frankly, seemed to me to be ridiculous, to the effect that hon. Members might like to put certain views or to ask certain questions which they were not prepared to do in public Debate. If that is so, I suggest that the proper way to put those questions is by a private letter to the Minister. I think it inappropriate and wrong that questions should be put in private on matters of high policy which cannot be put in public. I hope there will be some reply to my arguments. I have not attempted to collect any body of supporters around me. On this matter I am open to conviction, and I am willing to be convinced, if it is shown that I am wrong, but I think even those who disagree with me will regard some of the points which I have put as substantial points, which ought to be considered by a deliberative and representative Assembly.

I would finish with an admonition and a declaration. I believe this House stands very high in public estimation at the present time. I think its enemies, who have always existed, sometimes in frivolous circles outside, have been silent of late. The House certainly stands higher than it did, for example, in the 'eighties when there were constant disorders over the Irish question, and higher even than it did in the days which the Prime Minister and some other hon. Members will recall, immediately before the last war, when we were often on the verge of fisticuffs. I think this House has never commanded higher respect than it does at the present time. If that be so, what justification is there for holding six Secret Sessions in less than a year when, during the whole of the last war, we held only seven?

I hope my hon. Friend does not suggest that I ever threw a book at anybody, though I am sometimes, wrongly, associated with that incident. We should be extremely careful on this or any other occasion before embarking lightly upon Secret Sessions. At least reasons for such sittings should be given. In this time, when the lights of freedom are extinguished all over Europe, and when, for obvious reasons, they are dimmed in this country, we should guard its stronghold and its refuge in this House. We in this place are free, proud men and women looking all the world in the face. Let them know how we feel and think and talk. Let them know that our danger may be great, but our determination is greater. There is nothing in the matter of our relationships with foreign Powers which we need be ashamed to say, publicly, in this place.

4.14 p.m.

I never become agitated about ordinary questions of procedure, but I think it is agreed that the principle of the publicity of our proceedings in the House of Commons is important. The public at present take an intense interest in Parliament—not only the public of this country, but the public throughout the Empire. On the other hand, those who sit on these benches have, as a party, from time to time suggested that Sessions should be held in secret. In the early days of the war we pressed the Government for these Secret Sessions, sometimes without success. We attached then and we still attach great importance to those discussions, in which questions of defence are at issue, being conducted in private. It is obviously impossible for the Government to disclose all the facts to the public. On the other hand, my hon. Friends and I feel that there is no real case against having a full, frank and free discussion on international affairs. If the Prime Minister suggests that there is information which cannot be made public, he should give the House of Commons an opportunity for which there was a precedent during the last war; that is, to hold the first half of our discussions in public up to, say 7 o'clock. [HON. MEMBERS: "No," and "Divide."] Then Members who wish to speak in public can have their opportunity and those who have information of a secret or confidential character will be able to disclose it in the latter part of the Debate. I understand from the Prime Minister that the Under-Secretary has two speeches. Let him give one speech in public and the more secret and confidential one later in the Debate.

4.16 p.m.

I do not think this is in the least an easy question to decide by an early Division. There were centuries during which this House considered that its Debates and its Votes ought to be secret. It took nearly a century of agitation before the House discovered that in its own interest its words ought to be published and public, that criticism of the Government was valuable; and even Governments finally supported that view. Today we are reverting over a great part of the world to the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and in exactly the same way this House is trying to revert to type by keeping its discussions secret and to have a certain private privilege over the people in the country—[An HON. MEMBER:"No."]—It is a privilege to have information given to you which other people do not possess. One of the greatest privileges we enjoy in this House is free access to the Executive.

Is there any reason why this House should not exercise the functions of any ordinary town council and go into committee on things that matter?

This is not a matter which we can pass over in the light way in which it was dealt in the Prime Minister's speech. Directly I heard the Prime Minister make that speech I knew there would be no hope of getting freedom of Debate to-day. It is because of my fervent hope that I may convert the Prime Minister for future occasions that I address a few words to the House to-day. It is most important that Debates in this House should not be private committee Debates, but that they should be open Debates. It has been said over and over again, particularly by my hon. Friends on this side, that it is important that we should be able to cross-examine Ministers privately and get information from them.

It has often been advocated on these benches that we should have what the French call the committee system, under which there is a committee dealing with, say, foreign affairs which has free but private discussions with Ministers on matters concerning their Departments. That system has great advantages, and it introduces a large number of people to the Executive. We have got round it in this House. Over and over again Members on both sides, in the 1922 Committee or in Labour party meetings, have been addressed in private by Ministers from whom they have got information which is not made public. They are also able at these meetings to give Ministers their strongly held opinions which it would not be desirable to make in public. That course can easily be worked under our present procedure. All we ask is that the Government must not take advantage of their vast majority to prevent public expression of criticism in this House any more than they can do it in the Press. The Press has been the principal critic of the Government for the last few months—not a hostile critic, but a critic to stimulate their energy. It would be unfortunate if we gave an opportunity to people outside to say that the House of Commons had abrogated its duty of public criticism in favour of the newspapers.

Why was this Debate asked for? It was because some of us were afraid of the policy of appeasement which was so disastrous at Munich being extended to the appeasement of Japan or of Spain or of Rumania. Is there any reason why that could not be said by us in public as by the Press? The whole House and country are vitally interested in whether there has been a change in policy in the Foreign Office of this country, and it is urgently necessary that we should express our anxiety lest this extension of the policy of appeasement, long after we had hoped it had ceased to be, should be carried on by the Foreign Office with their tendency to avoid criticism, to carry through their measures, and then to wash their hands of the consequences. In the last war the whole criticism from what is called the Union of Democratic Control and from all the Left Wing, was against secret diplomacy. Here we are forgetting that and once more contributing to secret diplomacy. It is all very well to say that in Secret Session we can impress the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

We hope he agrees with us already. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs is not present. The whole object of public Debate is to back up by criticism in this House the criticism expressed in the country, and, above all, to direct that criticism to the people who are criticised. The people we want to criticise are the permanent officials, of course, through the proper political channels. In open Debate the permanent officials are present under the gallery, and they know what is going on; the OFFICIAL REPORT and the Press report it, but when the criticism is made in Secret Session the permanent officials are not there, the country and the Press are not present. There is only the unfortunate Under-Secretary, who cannot possibly remember all that is said in Debate and is not able to look to his permanent officials for anything, and the Debate is wasted. It has no effect whatever on the people who are actually conducting the affairs of the nation.

The first objection to a Secret Session is that it gives the public the erroneous impression that something tremendously secret has been divulged. Everybody who has been at any Secret Session knows that every one of them might just as well have been in open Session. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I should be glad to

Division No. 64.]


[4.33 p.m.

Adams, D. (Consett)Braithwaite, Major A. N. (Buckrose)Clynes, Rt. Hon. J. R.
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.)Brass, Sir W.Colman, N. C. D.
Adamson, W. M.Broad, F. A.Cook, Sir T. R. A. M. (Norfolk, N.)
Anderson, F. (Whitehaven)Broadbridge, Sir G. T.Crowder, J. F. E.
Anstruther-Gray, W. J.Brocklebank, Sir EdmundCulverwell, C. T.
Astor, Major Hon. J. J. (Dver)Brooke, H. (Lewisham, W.)Daggar, G.
Astor, Viscountess (Plymouth, Sutton)Brown, C. (Mansfield)Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill)
Barnes, A. J.Brown, Brig.-Gen, H. C. (Newbury)Da la Bère, R.
Beauchamp, Sir B. C.Burke, W. A.Denville, Alfred
Beaumont, H. (Batley)Burton, Col. H. W.Dobbie, W.
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)Butcher, H. W.Doland, G. F.
Beechman, N. A.Campbell, Sir E. T.Duckworth, W. R. (Moss Side)
Bennett, Sir E. N.Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)Duncan, J. A. L. (Kensington, N.)
Benson, G.Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)Dunn, E. (Rother Valley)
Bird, Sir R. B.Charleton, H. C.Edwards, N. (Caerphilfy)
Blair, Sir R.Chater, D.Ellis, Sir G.
Boles, Lt.-Col. D. C.Cluse, W. S.Elliston, Capt. G. S.

hear in the subsequent Debate anything which has been said by anybody in Secret Session that could not have been divulged in open Session. The next objection is that the Debate can have no effect upon the people we most wish to affect, namely, the Civil Service and the military heads of the different Service Departments. Then, the holding of a Secret Session impresses the country as a sign of weakness—the fact that we are forced to debate a thing in secret. The country is suspicious, and is bound to be suspicious, not so much about what individual Members are doing, but about what the Government are doing, if the subject of debate has to be discussed in secret. Then there is the far worse effect it has upon Goebbels and Goering. Everything that is reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT Goebbels will—

On a point of Order. May I draw attention to the fact that if this discussion as to whether or not there should be a secret or an open Session continues much longer there will be no Session at all?

In order that we may have a decision on this matter without further irrelevancy, I beg to say that I spy strangers.

Whereupon Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 89, put the Question, "That strangers be ordered to withdraw."

The House divided: Ayes, 200; Noes, 109.

Emmott, C. E. G. C.Liddall, W. S.Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)
Entwistle, Sir C. F.Lloyd, Major E. G. R. (Renfrew, E.)Rothschild, J. A. de
Etherton, RalphLoftus, P. C.Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.
Evans, Colonel A. (Cardiff, S.)Lucas, Major Sir J. M.Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A.
Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H.Lyons, A. M.Russell, Sir Alexander
Fox, Sir G. W. G.McCallum, Major D.Salmon, Sir I.
Frankel, D.Maclay, Hon. John S. (Montrose)Salt, E. W.
Fraser, Captain Sir IanM'Connell, Sir J.Samuel, M. R. A.
Fremantle, Sir F. E.Magnay, T.Sanderson, Sir F. B.
Gardner, B. W.Makins, Brigadier-General Sir ErnestSelley, H. R.
Garro Jones, G. M.Marsden, Captain A.Shepperson, Sir E. W.
Gates, E. E.Martin, J. H.Silkin, L.
Gibbins, J.Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.Simmonds, O. E.
Gibson, R. (Greerock)Mellor, Sir J. S. P.Smiles, Sir W. D.
Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)Mills, Sir F. (Leyton, E.)Smith, Bracewell (Dulwich)
Green, W. H. (Deptford)Milner, Major J.Smith, Rt. Hon. H. B. Lees- (K'ly>
Gridley, Sir A. B.Mitcheson, Sir G. G.Smith, Sir R. W. (Aberdeen)
Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth)Molson, A. H. E.Smith, T. (Normanton)
Griffiths. J. (Llanelly)Moore-Brabazon, Lt.-Col. J. T. C.Spears, Brigadier-General E. L.
Gunston, Capt. Sir D. W.Morgan, J. (York, W.R., Doncaster)Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel)Morris, J. P. (Salford, N.)Strickland, Captain W. F.
Hammersley, S. S.Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.)Stuart, Lord C. Crichton- (N'thw'h>
Hannon, Sir P. J. H.Mort, D. L.Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Harland, H. P.Muff, G.Tate, Mavis C.
Haslam, HenryNoel-Baker, P. J.Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Hayday, A.Nunn, W.Thorne, W.
Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.Palmer, G. E. H.Thurtle, E.
Hely-Hutchinson, M. R.Parker, J.Touche, G. C.
Henderson, J. (Ardwick)Pearson, A.Train, Sir J
Henderson, T. (Tradeston)Peat, C. U.Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.
Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.Perkins. W. R. D.Turton, R. H.
Hogg, Hon. Q. MoG.Peters, Dr. S. J.Walkden, A. G.
Hollins, A. (Hanley)Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.Walker, J.
Hollins, J. H. (Silvertown)Pickthorn, K. W. M.Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)
Howitt, Dr. A. B.Pilkington, R.Watkins, F. C.
Hurd, Sir P. A.Ponsenby, Col. C. E.Wayland, Sir W. A
Isaacs, G. A.Power, Sir J. C.Webbe, Sir W. Harold
Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir AsshetonWelsh, J. C.
Joel, D. J. B.Profumo, J. D.White, Sir Dymoke (Fareham)
John, W.Pym, L. R.Wickham, Lt.-Col. E. T. R.
Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.Quibell, D. J. K.Williams, Sir H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Kerr, H. W. (Oldham)Radford, E. A.Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)
Kimball, L.Ramsden, Sir E.Windsor-Clive, Lieut.-Colonel G.
King-Hall, Commander W. S. R.Rathbone, Eleanor (English Univ's.)Woods, G. S. (Finsbury)
Lamb, Sir J. Q.Rawson, Sir CooperWoolley, W. E.
Lambert, Rt. Hon. G.Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
Lathan, G.Reid, W. Allan (Derby)Young, Sir R. (Newton)
Lawson, J. J.Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)
Leigh, Sir J.Ritson, J.Sir William Davison and Sir J.
Leslie, J. R.Robertson, D.Wardlaw-Milne.


Acland, Sir R. T. D.George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey)MacDonald, Sir Murdoch (Inverness)
Albery, Sir IrvingGledhill, G.McEntee, V. La T.
Balfour, G. (Hampstead)Glyn, Major Sir R. G. C.Mander, G. le M.
Banfield, J. W.Gower, Sir R. V.Mathers, G.
Barr, J.Granville, E. L.Maxton, J.
Bartlett, C. V. O.Gretton, Col. Rt. Hon. J.Messer, F.
Baxter, A. BeverleyGroves, T. E.Morgan, H. B. W. (Rochdale)
Beamish, Rear-Admiral T. P. H.Hall, W. G. (Colne Valley)Morris-Jones, Sir Henry
Bellenger, Capt. F. J.Hambro, A. V.Naylor, T. E.
Bossom, A. C.Hannah, I. C.Oliver, G. H.
Bromfield, W.Harris, Sir P. A.Owen, Major G.
Buchanan, G.Harvey, T. E.Price, M. P.
Burgin, Rt. Hon. E. L.Headlam, Lieut.-Col. Sir C. M.Pritt, D. N.
Caine, G. R. Hall-Hicks, E. G.Purbrick, R.
Cary, R. A.Holmes, J. S.Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin)
Cazalet, Major V. A. (Chippenham)Horabin, T. L.Roberts, W. (Cumberland, N.>
Christie, J. A.Hore-Belisha, Rt. Hon. L.Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)
Cocks, F. S.Hume, Sir G. H.Rowlands, G.
Collindridge, F.Jackson, W. F.Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)
Cooke, J. D. (Hammersmith, S.)Keeling, E. H.Shaw, Captain W. T. (Forfar)
Courtauld, Major J. S.Kerr, Sir John Graham (Sco'sh Univs.)Shute, Colonel Sir J. J.
Cove, W. G.Key, C. W.Silverman, S. S.
Cox, H. B. TrevorKirkwood, D.Sloan, A.
Crooke, Sir J. SmedleyLeighton, Major B. E. P.Smith, E. (Stoke)
Davies, Clement (Montgomery)Levy, T.Smithers, Sir W.
Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)Lewis, O.Somerville, Sir A. A. (Windsor)
Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)Lindsay, K. M.Sorensen, R. W.
De Chair, S. S.Lipson, D. L.Southby, Commander Sir A. R. J.
Denman, Hon. R. D.Little, Sir E. Graham.Spens, W. P.
Gallacher, W.Locker-Lampson, Comdr. O. S.Stephen, C.
George, Rt. Hon. D. Lloyd (Carn'v'n)Lunn, W.Stokes. R. R.

Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.)Viant, S. P.Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl
Summerskill, Dr. EdithWallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. EvanWright, Wing-Commander J. A. C.
Sulcliffe, H.Ward, Lieut. Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Sykes, Sir F. H.Wells, Sir SydneyTELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Tasker, Sir R. I.Weston, W. G.Mr. Wedgwood and Mr. Aneurin Bevan.
Tinker, J. J.White, H. Graham
Tomlinson, G.

Strangers withdrew accordingly.

The following record of the subsequent proceedings is taken front the Votes and Proceedings:

Question again proposed, "That the remainder of this day's Sitting be a Secret Session, and that strangers be ordered to withdraw."

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Adjourned accordingly at Seven Minutes before Ten o'Clock.

Resolved, "That the remainder of this day's Sitting be a Secret Session."—[ The Prime Minister.]