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Bristol Aeroplane Company (Departmental Report)

Volume 388: debated on Thursday 8 April 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Sir J. Edmondson.]

The subject on which I am about to speak is one that I have been trying to bring before the House since before last Christmas. My patience is at last rewarded, but I will not try the patience of the House for more than a few minutes. I do not think I can introduce the subject better than by quoting from the OFFICIAL REPORT of 9th December, 1942, a Question that I put to the Minister of Information and the reply that I received:

"MR. CULVERWELL asked the Minister of Information for what purpose and on whose authority has a confidential Report on the Bristol Aeroplane Company been prepared by officials of his Department; what is the nature of the material contained in this Report; and have Reports of a similar nature been compiled regarding other industrial undertakings?
Mr. BRACKEN: It is part of the duties of local officers of the Ministry of Information to report on matters which are arousing public interest in their region. A confidential report of this kind from the Information Officer of the South Western Region, made nine months' ago, touched on matters concerning the Bristol Aeroplane Company which had attracted public attention, and this was referred to the Government Department concerned.
Mr. CBLVERWELL: Why is a Member of Parliament not allowed to see this Report, which, I understand, was unauthorised by my right hon. Friend?
Mr. BRACKEN: I do not authorise all the activities of the Ministry of Information; otherwise, there would be a serious bottleneck. But there are certain confidential jobs which the Ministry of Information does for Government Departments which cannot be made available to Members of Parliament."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th December, 1942; cols. 1554–5, Vol. 385.]
I have not been allowed to see this document and I do not know what it contains, but I understand that the report to which the Minister refers is based on information contained in a large dossier consisting of reports, tittle-tattle, scandal and criticisms regarding the management and the conditions of work at the Bristol Aeroplane Company—chatter and talk which has been overheard in pubs and other places. I understand that the management have had no opportunity of seeing the report or replying to the criticisms that it contains. It is a purely one-sided report drawn from irresponsible sources. The first question I would like to ask is whether my information is correct and, if not, what is the nature of the report. I should also like to know on whose authority, and by whom, it was compiled, and for what purpose. In his reply to a supplementary question, the Minister said that there are certain confidential jobs which the Minister of Information does for Government Departments. I should like to know whether this document was compiled at the request of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, because that is what the reply seems to suggest.

In any case, whether it was compiled at the request of the Ministry of Aircraft Production or on the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, it does not seem to be the sort of work that the Ministry of Information should do at all. The Minister told me he had no knowledge of the dossier and since I brought the matter to his notice, he had given orders that further work of such a nature was to be stopped. I should like to know whether he does not agree that this is not the sort of work the Minister of In- formation should undertake. I should also like an answer—which the Minister did not give—to my question whether there are any other reports of a similar nature in existence, or whether other reports regarding other undertakings are being compiled. I find it difficult to believe that the Bristol Aeroplane Company should be singled out for the particular attentions of the Ministry of Information. I should also like to know what use is being made of the report and of other reports which may have been compiled.

I do not understand why the Minister would not allow me to see the report. I cannot believe that a report of this nature, compiled by local officials, should contain matters so secret and confidential that they cannot be seen by a Member of Parliament. The matter raises important issues. As I say, I contend that this work should not be undertaken by the Ministry of Information at all, and the fact that the Minister told me he did not know it was being compiled and that he had stopped further work on it, suggests that there is a lack of definition of the functions of the Ministry and that officials have not been told where their duties begin and end. I believe it is most unfair to the managements of industrial undertakings that they should be subjected to this form of anonymous, irresponsible, and probably ill-informed criticism without any chance of replying to it or seeing what it contains. Owing to the fact that the matter has been deferred by force of circumstances since before Christmas, I am raising it at a time when the Minister of Aircraft Production is beginning to take over, on behalf of the Government, certain industrial undertakings. A report of this nature, anonymous and irresponsible, containing criticism of the management, in the hands of the Minister of Aircraft Production might certainly have an influence on his mind. I hope that it will not have a decisive influence, but it certainly might influence his mind in coming to a decision on whether or not to take over a firm. This is a matter of some importance, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give a satisfactory reply.

I think that the hon. Member is raising this issue because he is under two wrong impressions. He does not really under- stand what the functions of the Ministry of Information are and he obviously does not know the nature of the report to which he has referred. Among the many duties imposed upon the Ministry of Information is the duty of concerning itself with morale. We discovered through the report of our regional information officer that at Bristol morale was suffering because of adverse comments—I am not saying whether they were justified or not—which were circulating in the city as to slackness and faults of production in the aircraft factory to which the hon. Member has referred. We were informed that this was definitely having a bad effect upon the morale of the citizens of Bristol. It must be remembered that this took place about 12 months ago when Bristol had suffered severely from bombing and when morale might, probably, have been somewhat sensitive.

It was our duty, having been informed of this disturbance of morale, to find out the facts if we could. That is an obligation which is placed upon us. We instructed a reliable officer of the Ministry to find out the nature of these rumours and allegations. The report which we received was the report of this officer. In case the hon. Member is under any misapprehension on this point, I would make it clear that it was not a report upon the management of the Bristol Aircraft Company or the conditions obtaining in their factory. It was simply a report of what people in Bristol were saying about the conditions obtaining in that factory. That is a vital distinction to make. It was our duty to make this inquiry and, having got the report, it was our duty to pass it on to the proper authority without expressing any opinion as to whether or not the statements were well-founded. In this case, as it was a matter concerning aircraft production, we passed on the report—not suggesting that the statements in it were well-founded—to the regional officer of the Ministry of Aircraft Production for him to take whatever action he might think fit. That is all that happened.

Does the hon. gentleman suggest that the sole duty of the Ministry of Information, when it hears that morale is bad, is to ascertain what is being said in the way of tittle-tattle and scandal? Having found out that there is tittle-tattle and scandal, suggestions of inefficiency and of workmen making toys in- stead of aeroplanes, and so on, did not the Ministry take any steps to counteract and to contradict those statements in public? It does not seem any good to compile a report of these scandals and keep it under your hat.

It would be grossly unfair to the company concerned to publish a report of that sort without taking it to the proper department which is competent to examine the allegations and find out whether there is any truth in them. That would be doing a real disservice to the firm concerned.

Surely if you are trying to improve morale the obvious thing is to get a report on the scandal that is being put round in publichouses, to submit it to the management and to ask whether there is any truth in it, and if there is not any truth in the statements that are being made, to say so publicly. Otherwise, the scandal goes on, the tittle-tattle does not stop, you do no good at all, and it is very unfair on the management, because they have not seen the report.

It was not our function to investigate the truth or otherwise of these allegations. It was the function of the appropriate body, the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

No, they did not report back to us. I do not know whether they took any action at all. I cannot tell what action they did take. To ascertain that, a Question would have to be addressed to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. All we were concerned to do, as a medium of information, when we discovered that these remarks were going about was to collect the remarks and submit them to the appropriate body for investigation of whether they were well-founded or not. I do not see that any obligation beyond that rested upon us. I was going on to deal with the point of whether the hon. Member ought or ought not to have been allowed to see this file.

I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that the Ministry of Information sent down an individual to ascertain certain facts in Bristol. Do I understand that in ascertaining the facts about morale in Bristol he never, as part of his investigation, made any inquiry from the firm, whether they could throw any light on the subject?

Certainly not. It would have been a most improper thing for us, as the Ministry of Information, to approach the Bristol Aeroplane Company directly. We have a medium for that purpose which is the Ministry of Aircraft Production, so we took the proper and appropriate steps and sent this report to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, who were in touch with the firm and could therefore investigate the allegations which were made. In regard to the point about seeing the file, although my hon. Friend seems to think he was dealt with hardly in being refused access to this file an important principle is involved here. If the Ministry of Information have agents whose duty it is to send us confidential reports, and if they make their reports to us on the basis that they are confidential reports, I do not think access to those files ought to be given to anyone outside the Department, and that is the view which my right hon. Friend takes on that point.

What the Parliamentary Secretary has said is really of some importance. I think I am within the memory of the House when I say that these local committees were originally set up to be channels by which news and information could be disseminated to the public in the event of the ordinary means of communication breaking down through enemy action.

This was not due to any action on the part of a local information committee. This was due to action by the responsible regional information officer, and it was an officer under him who carried out this investigation. The local information committee had nothing whatever to do with it.

The Parliamentary Secretary has not answered my question whether this action was taken only in Bristol. It seems rather remarkable that the Bristol Aeroplane Company alone should receive the attentions of the Ministry of Information.

So far as my information goes we have not received from any of our other areas a similar report of rumours about an aircraft factory which were having a bad effect upon morale. So far as I know this is a special, singular case.

From what the Minister says it seems that the Ministry must have acted after some information was given to it, and that information could only have come from members of the local information committee. It may be that they did not actually carry out the investigation, but they must have submitted to a higher authority that, in their opinion, there was a necessity for an investigation. What we find is that the Ministry of Information, apart from its other functions, acts as a sort of secret service, compiles information from tattle and gossip that it hears, is under no obligation to tell the victims of that gossip of what they are accused and then submits that gossip in a report which is confidential, and to which access is denied the representatives in this House of the constituency concerned. Then the Ministry passes it on to another Government Department, which will or will not take action upon it and is under no obligation, apparently, to submit this report, which has been compiled as a result of secret investigations by a representative of the Ministry of Information, or to show it to the people who should be the first to see it and to know with what they are charged.

That may be right or wrong, but let the House and the country understand that that is what is going on; that investigators can go round this country and gather information from all sorts of places and channels, which may or may not be accurate, and then submit it to a Government Department as a highly secret and confidential document which is not allowed to be given to anybody else, and of the destination of which we have no knowledge. They do not do very much worse than that in Germany, and we had better realise that that is what is going on here: I have yet to learn that it is part of the functions of the Ministry of Information, as originally set up by this House, to become a sort of handmaiden to the ordinary Secret Service organisation in this country, and I am glad to hear that, as far as the Minister knows, there is no other case. I hope there will be no other case. I do not think it is part of the duty of the Minister of Information to investigate charges against individuals or firms. This thing is capable of spreading and I hope that steps will be taken to curtail the activities of the people who go round compiling confidential reports, based on gossip which has been brought to their notice.

I support what has just been said by the hon. Baronet. I heard of this rumour that went round. Anybody who has run an industrial organisation knows that such rumours do float round, and if it is possible for an investigation to be held without a prima facie case having been made, great damage will be done. As was said by the hon. Member in his opening remarks, it is known in Bristol that this investigation was made and, since nothing more has happened, there must be a slur on any company in that position. I should maintain this opinion regarding any organisation of mine if it were known that a Government inquiry, a "hush-hush" inquiry, had been held and nothing more had been done. I should like to know what procedure can be adopted in order that a firm in that position might clear themselves. If I go round the clubs and the pubs if I like to get my scouts out and collect the, gossip I will find something about any organisation in this country and any Government Department. If it is known that this is being done, people talk about it and circulate it, and when nothing happens, they think that there is something wrong. There ought to be an opportunity of contradicting such rumours and I hope that some action will be taken to prevent this sort of thing growing.

I should like to reiterate what I said to the hon. and gallant Baronet. Whether he likes it or not, the function has been laid upon the Ministry of Information to concern itself with morale and we have, as he probably knows, a regional organisation. The duty of the regional officers is to report to us, as they do regularly, whether there is any special factor which, in their judgment——

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.