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Flying Bomb Attacks (Conferences With Ministers)

Volume 402: debated on Wednesday 21 June 1944

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I am sorry. I desire, Mr. Speaker, to ask your Ruling on a question, which I have already submitted to you privately. I desire to submit a point of Order concerning the proposed meetings or conferences between Members and Ministers, on the subject of, bombs, on which an announcémnt has recently been made by the Leader of the House. It would seem certain that disclosure by Members inside or outside the House of what takes place at these meetings, would not be a breach of Privilege as disclosure of what takes place when the House is in Secret Session is. This would seem to be proved by the fact that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Rear-Admiral Beamish) said in the House that one of these meetings or conferences previously held had been informative. Clearly, such a statement applied to a Secret Session would have been out of Order. Yet I submit that it is highly desirable that these proceedings should be treated as secret, as would be a Secret Session, in order that Members may put points which could not be discussed on the Floor of the House. No difficulty need arise in practice owing to the high standard of reticence and responsibility which Members observe in matters of this kind but it is, I submit, highly desirable that, if possible, some direction should emanate from the Chair on the subject. I, therefore, most respectfully beg to submit for your consideration, Sir, that you should make a statement to the effect that Members should feel themselves as much bound to secrecy over matters discussed and questions asked and answered at these conferences and meetings, as they would be if these proceedings had taken place in Secret Session, even though there is no Standing Order to bind them to such secrecy.

The Noble Lord has asked me for a Ruling on a point of Order, and has also submitted a Private Notice Question for my approval. It will be convenient to deal with both in the same Ruling. As regards the proposed meetings between Ministers and Members of Parliament, I consider these to be of the class of all-party Private Members' committees, and, therefore, I must decline to give any direction from the Chair as to the rules of secrecy. This cannot be covered by Privilege, or by the Emergency Defence Regulations in the case of such unofficial committees. I agree with the Noble Lord when he says that no difficulty need arise, owing to the high standard of reticence and responsibility which hon. Members observe, and I leave it at that.

As regards the Private Notice Question, strictly speaking, I should not allow a Question on a matter for which a Minister is not officially responsible to this House and I cannot allow such Questions in the future, but for the general convenience of Members, I am making an exception on this occasion. I take this opportunity of warning the House that these meetings should be regarded as quite unofficial as far as the proceedings of the House are concerned, and while I recognise that the demands of war must give rise to exceptional methods, I trust that in more normal times, these meetings shall not become a regular practice, as a substitute for Debate in the House.

As my name has been mentioned may I say one word? First of all, if in using the word "informative" I overstepped the bounds I should like to apologise. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I think we all recognise that the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) is the mentor of this House, and sometimes the tormentor, and I only want to say that, instead of using the word "informative" I might just as well have used the word "useful." It was meant as a compliment to the elasticity of the methods of this House, and not in any way as support for the Government, or advertisement for myself. That is how I feel about the matter.

I should like to make a persona] explanation. I intended to make, and indeed made, no attack on my hon. and gallant Friend. I was only drawing a distinction between proceedings upstairs, and what would take place in Secret Session. I merely used his phrase as an example.

May I put to you, Mr. Speaker, a point of Order about the forthcoming Business? I understand the Home Secretary is likely to make an announcement soon about signals for flying bombs. Would it be in Order during the forthcoming stages of the Supplementary Vote of Credit, for London Members to make suggestions as to what they consider Londoners would appreciate in the way of signals? This might be of some assistance to the Home Secretary in framing his decisions. Over arid above that, would it be in Order, during the discussion on the Supplementary Vote of Credit, to raise matters that concern billeting anomalies for evacuees?

I suppose, really, these things would be in Order, but I imagine —I do not know —that hon. Members would insist that they should be heard in Secret Session. As far as expenditure of the Vote of Credit is concerned, I cannot rule it out on the grounds of Order, that is perfectly clear.

I would like to raise a further point of Order on a Question which I put yesterday to the Leader of the House. It may be extreme stupidity on my part but I really do not know the position into which the House is getting itself. On this Vote of Credit to-day and on the discussion on the war which is to take place in ten days' time, if any Member, in discharge of his Parliamentary duties —especially those Members representing constituencies affected —desires to raise the question of the flying bomb, he, obviously, could not be ruled out of Order. Are we then to go into Secret Session? We really must have a statement from the Government on the matter, which will arise acutely on the Prime Minister's statement to be made in ten days' time.

I think the Noble Lord is making heavier weather than he need do. In conditions like those, I have great confidence in the good judgment and sense of the House. When we come to these matters Members may feel that they wish to make some references, and, if they wish to make them in public, with a due sense of their own responsibility, I have no doubt they will. If it should so happen that, in the view of the Government, the Debate began to take a turn of a dangerous character in the national interest we should —as any hon. Member would have the right to do —spy Strangers, and move into Secret Session.

Would the right hon. Gentleman clear up the point with regard to reference to places? I understand the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that no reference must be made to places. According to a report in the "Daily Mail" this morning, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security, in a speech in Manchester last night, referred to Kent. Does that mean that, in future, what is said by Ministers confidentially upstairs can be referred to by Ministers, but must not be revealed by Members of Parliament?

I am sure the hon. Member will realise it does not mean that. I appeal to the House to consider that it would not do very much good in pursuing these matters.

In your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, you said that the matters I had mentioned might come under the heading of secrecy. I suggest that signals concerning flying bombs and the evacuation of children could not possibly concern security.

Could not all these matters be left to the commonsense of Members studying the public interest?

(By Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in view of the fact that by longstanding custom, when Ministers meet Members upstairs, only questions are asked by hon. Members and no speeches are made, if it is the intention of the Government at the forthcoming conferences or meetings between hon. Members and Members of the Government on the subject of flying bombs, to permit speeches, since hon. Members may wish to state a particular point of view; and if so, as the speeches may be critical of the Ministers concerned, whether he will arrange for a member of the Panel of Chairmen to occupy the Chair, and not a Minister?

The intention of the Government has been, throughout, to try to meet the wishes of hon. Members in this matter, because the Government were conscious of, and shared the view, that the House did not wish at this time to hold a Secret Session. That is the basis on which we are proceeding. I do not think it is invariably the practice that Members are restricted to asking questions. I have myself had other experiences, and it was not the intention of the Government to restrict business in this way. In fact, I do not think that the Government would impose such limitations on essentially private meetings. I would emphasise that these meetings are essentially of an informal character, and I think it best to leave it to the good sense of those present to arrange a suitable procedure. I really think that, as regards the Chairman, Ministers may be trusted to conduct the proceedings in a fair manner. The meetings are not, I repeat, being arranged to protect the Government, but to assist Members on a particular matter.

Without asking my right hon. Friend to give an answer now, and while thanking him for his sympathetic reply to the first part of my question, might I ask whether he will give attention to the second part? It may be very embarrassing for Members who want to criticise a Minister if that Minister is in the chair. Why cannot my right hon. Friend arrange for a member of the Panel of Chairmen to take the chair?

I would ask my right hon. Friend to reflect where this is leading him. This meeting upstairs is an informal private meeting. It would be highly improper to have, at a private meeting, a Chairman from the Panel of Chairmen in the chair. We have to be careful of these things, to keep them on an informal basis. We can always look at the matter again, and see how we get on.

While endorsing what my right hon. Friend has said about the imformality of these meetings and their confidential character, may I suggest that it would be for the convenience of Members if he would agree to an impartial chairman? I believe that it would also be for his convenience, as well as for the efficient conduct of the meetings.

That is a little different from what my Noble Friend suggested. That is what I took exception to. I think we had better see how we get on next week. We only want to help hon. Members.