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The Situation In Poland

Volume 41: debated on Tuesday 10 August 1920

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My Lords, in pursuance of what took place at the beginning of business yesterday, I now beg to ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether he is in a position to make any statement to the House.

My Lords, in answering in the negative the question put by my noble friend I think I owe to him and to your Lordships' House an explanation of the reason for which I so reply. In my absence yesterday afternoon the noble Lord, who has for long taken a great interest in the question of Poland, and who, not unnaturally, desires to have an opportunity of expressing his views upon the matter, asked a question as to whether it was likely that a statement would be made.

In the course of his observations he remarked that His Majesty's Government had steadily and continually departed from the long established precedent of making statements in your Lordships' House in regard to such a crisis as now exists. Let me assure my noble friend that he is entirely mistaken. There has been no departure from precedent in this case, nor indeed, so far as I know, in the practice that has been adopted in your Lordships' House since I have had the great honour of being its Leader. On many occasions during the last three or four years in which I have occupied this position I have had the honour of making at this Table statements simultaneously with and, as far as could be arranged, identical with the information which was given in another place, and on no occasion justified by precedent have I failed in that which I regard as a duty of respect to your Lordships' House. I will go further than that and say that on many occasions when such a duty has not arisen I have intervened, whether in response to questions or otherwise, to give to your Lordships' House information on foreign affairs which I venture to think has been as full and as exhaustive as, indeed I think I might say more full and more exhaustive than, has usually been given by the representative of the Foreign Office on this Bench. My noble friend Lord Crawford defended me in this particular yesterday, and, if I may say so, defended me with justice.

I can recall, not I hope in a spirit of self-gratulation, more than one case—cases, for instance, relating to the position in Egypt and in Turkey—when I have volunteered very full and ample statements to your Lordships' House which have not simultaneously been made in another place, and which have exposed the Government there to the charge of having withheld from the House of Commons information which had been given in abundance to your Lordships' House. I therefore, with all respect, regard my withers as unwrung in this matter.

Now arises the question whether this particular case is one in which such a statement ought to be made. My noble friend Lord Salisbury, in his remarks yesterday, appeared to answer that question in the affirmative. May I point out to him that I think he is mistaken. The question is whether the present situation is one in which such a statement as I have been speaking of ought to be made to your Lordships' House, and I am answering that question in the negative for the following reasons. During the last five or six years, years of war, there has necessarily grown up a practice quite without precedent in the previous history of polities in this country—namely, an exchange of opinions, Conferences, between your own Ministers and the Ministers of Foreign Powers. During the last six or seven months I have myself had to attend no fewer than seven or eight of these Conferences. But they did not begin with this Government; they equally existed in the time of the Government of Mr. Asquith, and I recall many occasions, on some of which T was present, when the French Prime Minister and the French Foreign Minister came over here and, correspondingly, British Ministers have frequently gone over to France or other parts of the Continent. They go to exchange views and to arrive at a common course of action.

In not one of these cases has it been thought necessary to make a simultaneous statement to both Houses of Parliament. I was present at three or four of such Conferences during Mr. Asquith's Government —I was not Foreign Secretary then—and no such statement was made. I think it is clear that, if an account of such Conferences is given, in so far as it ought to be given at all it is better that it should be given by the chief Plenipotentiary in the House of which he happens to be a member. Your Lordships can readily conceive that of any one of these Conferences, difficult and delicate as they are, an account given by two Ministers simultaneously might contain certain divergencies, I will not say contradictions, which might be a source of controversy and friction. Therefore we have adopted the plan of the statement, wherever a statement is required of the results of such Conferences, being made by the chief Plenipotentiary, who happens in this case to be the Prime Minister. I think that is the right procedure. The cases in which simultaneous statements of policy are involved are cases where the country has a right to know the decision or views or advice of the Cabinet, but in matters of this sort it is more often a narrative of what has taken place at these Conferences and of the general conclusions that have been arrived at.

If I may confirm my account of the correct procedure With regard to such Conferences, I would like to remind the House, if they do not recollect it, that in no less important a case than that of the Berlin Conference of 1878, when Lord Beaconsfield and the noble Marquess's father, the late Marquess of Salisbury, came back after that triumphant vindication of British authority and influence, no statement was made in both Houses of Parliament. The chief Plenipotentiary, Lord Beaconsfield, stood up in your Lordships' House and made a statement, and if you will look at the proceedings of the House of Commons on the same day—July 18, 1878—you will find that no statement was made there at all. A question was asked there as to whether a statement would be made, and if so when, and an answer was given that if a certain noble Lord of influence would put down a question on the Paper—Lord Hartington I think did—the question could be raised at a later date. Therefore I am relying on a precedent of the first value and importance when I speak of procedure that is normal being adopted with regard to Conferences of this nature.

It is for these reasons that I think it on the whole desirable not to make a statement to-day, but on the other hand I am most anxious to meet Lord Treowen in any way that I can. He has a Question on the subject on the Order Paper for to-morrow, but I gather from the course of business that it may not be reached until a late period in the evening. I think the best plan would be this. Arising out of what has been said in another place to-day, which will be in all the papers to-morrow, my noble friend or any other noble Lord may desire to put certain questions to the Government about Poland. They will not desire that 1 should repeat the state- ment made over the way to-day, but they may want to put a question or challenge the conduct of the Government in any particular. If my noble friend wishes to do so, or any noble Lord, and will give me notice of the particular point that he wants to raise, I will either give a reply when the Question of Lord Treowen comes up in its ordinary course upon the Paper, or if he likes to put the question at the commencement of public business to-morrow, I will answer it then. That suggestion is applicable to-morrow or the next day, whichever is more convenient to noble Lords. In that way your Lordships' House and my noble friend will have the opportunity desired, and at the same time I shall be acting in accordance with ordinary precedent in the manner I have described.

My Lords, perhaps you will allow me to say one word, as the noble Earl has been good enough to refer to me. I have certainly neither the historical knowledge nor the responsibility of the noble Earl to enable me for a moment to contest the conclusion at which he has arrived. It may be more convenient that the statement should be a single statement made by the Prime Minister in another place rather than a simultaneous statement in both Houses of Parliament. I certainly have a recollection, not perhaps so clear as that of the noble Earl, of a number of occasions on which there has been a simultaneous statement in both Houses; and there is this very special reason why we ventured to urge it upon the Government last night, although we did so with great diffidence. We have the great pleasure of having in your Lordships' House the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and we naturally expect that upon Foreign Office questions he would speak with at least as great authority as the Prime Minister. It was for these reasons that we made the suggestion.

We ought to be grateful to the noble Earl for the way in which he has met our wishes to hear what he has to say about Poland, and I am sure the noble Lord will accept the suggestion he has made and put his Question to-morrow; whether it be; before Public Business or at the end is a matter to be decided by private conference. We shall be grateful to the noble Earl if he will answer in the fullest degree as the matter is a very grave one. The noble Earl's statement will he accepted by the country equally with that of the statement of a still greater Minister in another place.

My Lords, I should like to express my regret if, in the heat of the moment, I in any way exaggerated what I believed to be a certain grievance which I thought your Lordships' House might feel, as I did, that we do not hear statements so often from the noble Earl as we should wish. He will believe me when I say that I was actuated not so much by a desire to criticise any action of the Government but by a desire, which is shared by many of your Lordships, that we should have the privilege of hearing direct from His Majesty's Ministers what they have to communicate on a great crisis such as the present. I thank the Loble Earl for the way in which he has considered my position in the matter and for the kind suggestion he had made. I can assure him and your Lordships that I do not wish unduly to press any of His Majesty's Ministers at such a time as the present, and I realise that, having placed this matter before your Lordships, I am in the hands of the House. It is possible that some other noble Lord may wish to raise questions with regard to Poland. I will therefore consider whether that be your desire before finally surrendering such rights as I may have to put the Question to the noble Earl.