§ 6.45 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
I beg to move,That no proceeding in this House during the last Parliament held in Secret Session be any longer secret.The issue before the House is, I think, a fairly simple one. Briefly it is whether the secrecy which was imposed in the interests of national security on certain of the proceedings of the House during the war should be maintained and continued in present circumstances. When I told the House last Thursday of our intentions in this respect, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington(Mr. Eden) asked whether we would give our reasons for our proposal at what might seem to be an early stage. I said that we would do so. In short, the Government's reasons for asking the House to lift this ban now are that they are satisfied that it is nolonger necessary and, as I have told the House before — without always, I am afraid, convincing hon. Members opposite, which is a pity because I meant what I said — the Government are anxious to lift all wartime restrictions as soon as they cease to be necessary. They are firmly opposed to restrictions for their own sake, and they are also firmly opposed to secrecy unless there are good grounds of public interest for it. In pursuance of this policy of doing away with all unnecessary restrictions and secrecy, we ask the House to approve this Motion.
1408 The House met in Secret Session during the war for one reason and one reason only — to keep from the enemy information which might help him in the prosecution of the war. Many of the Secret Sittings — 28 in number — dealt with the days and hours of meeting of the House — an elementary air raid precaution — and secrecy in this respect has already been removed by the Resolution passed by the House on 26th September, 1944. As for the other Secret Sittings — 37 in number, including three which also dealt with hours — I must confine myself to the official reports of the proceedings which were issued by Mr. Speaker, but I can say that as regards most of them there can be no conceivable objection to disclosure now, and doubt can only exist about what I may call the major occasions when important statements were made or discussions took place connected with the conduct of the war in one phase or another.
The secrecy which was imposed during the war was enforced by two methods.
§ Earl Winterton (Horsham)
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain one thing, which is really a question of Procedure? He said he must confine himself to official reports of the proceedings. Does that mean that he considers that he is stopped, by the Rules of the House, from referring to what was the nature of these Secret Sessions?
§ Mr. Morrison
Except in so far as there was publication by an authorised announcement by Mr. Speaker at the time, 1409 I think I am estopped, unless and until this Motion is carried.
Publication of anything which happened in Secret Sessions which went further than the Speaker's official report was, and of course remains, a breach of Privilege. Secondly, under Defence Regulation 3(2), which was revoked on 28th September, shortly after the Press censorship came to an end, it was an offence to publish any report of, or to purport to describe the proceedings at, any Secret Session, except such report or description thereof as was officially communicated through the Press and Censorship Bureau. That revocation took place by Order in Council. No objection was raised, and there was no Prayer against the revocation of that Defence Regulation. Thus the question of an offence under Defence Regulation has gone.
What remains and what we have to decide tonight is whether references to proceedings in Secret Session shall continue to be a breach of Privilege. We as a Government are satisfied that this is no longer necessary on security grounds. If this is so, the maintenance of the ban could only, in our view, be justified if there were other and weighty reasons for maintaining it in the public interest. I can conceive that there might be circumstances in which notwithstanding that there was no longer any danger to national security it would be right to keep the Privilege protection on, but in the present case neither I nor those of my colleagues in the Government who were members of the last House of Commons and attended the Secret Sessions know of any substantial reason for doing so. I was present, I think, at all the more important Secret Sessions—I was not present all the time at every one—and as far as my own recollection of the proceedings goes, it is certainly my firm opinion that there would be no danger to public security if the ban were now lifted. On the other hand, it is, as I have said, right in principle to lift the security ban as soon as it can safely be done, and there are also solid practical reasons for this course.
The chief is that as recollections fade of what was said in secret and what in open Session there is a serious risk of the ban becoming a dead letter in effect. It is very easy, as I am sure hon. Members who were present on those occasions will will agree, to forget whether a particular 1410 thing was mentioned at a Secret Session or at a public Session. It is the more difficult because the ban applies to everything which was said in secret and not only to matters which were in themselves and by themselves secret. Much was harmless even at the time, and much has become common knowledge since.
It is, therefore, in the interest of all who attended the Secret Sessions that they should be protected against the predicament in which it would be so easy to find oneself of inadvertently referring to secret proceedings without realising that one was doing so. And what is worse, as time goes on the ban will become increasingly difficult to enforce, and the moral authority of the House and the respect for its orders will be weakened. It is also desirable from the point of view of history that the restrictions should be removed as early as possible.
§ Mr. Morrison
I was nearly tempted then, but it would involve a breach of Privilege, and I beg my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich not to tempt me any more. The proceedings were not reported at the time, nor have they been reported since in the Hansard sense of the term, nor in any other sense, as far as I know.
If the removal of the restrictions is delayed until memories become still dimmer and maybe some of the principal actors have died it will increase the risk that the impression which the public and posterity will obtain of the proceedings will be misleading and incomplete. It may be argued that one of the objections to acting now is the risk that currency will be given to garbled versions of what took place. In fact, I should have thought that the earlier the ban is lifted the less risk there was of garbled versions and the longer the ban was kept on the greater the risk, when it comes off, of the versions being garbled. The sanctions against the spread of inaccurate accounts of the secret proceedings will, as I have said, be easier to enforce now than later. Anybody outside the House who gives offence in this respect can be dealt with under the ordinary rules of Privilege. Inside the House the Chair can be relied on to provide an effective check.
The removal of the ban on the disclosure of proceedings in Secret Session is an essential preliminary to the publication 1411 of the Journals of the wartime Sessions, which have been withheld from the public during the last six years. It is true that the Journals do not report speeches, but they record proceedings as well as decisions of the House. And although proceedings and decisions in some of the Secret Sessions were reported by Mr. Speaker, with regard to others no official information has hitherto been made public. The agreement of the House to the Motions which I am proposing will secure the immediate release for publication of the wartime Journals, which are already in print but have been available hitherto only to a few officers of the House.
The Motion before the House is solely the responsibility of the Government, but I should, I think, say again that, as I told the House last Thursday, we thought it right to inform Mr. Speaker on a matter which is so essentially one of Parliamentary procedure and he tells us that there is no objection as far as he is concerned.
I accordingly ask the House to agree that no proceeding in this House during the last Parliament held in Secret Session be any longer kept secret, and for the reasons I have submitted to the House I trust that this Motion will be agreeable to hon. Members.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Eden (Warwick and Leamington)
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us this information. It was useful both for the House and for others who may not be very familiar with our Procedure. Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman at once that the last thing I want to do is to discourage him in any way, if he is moved by the spirit to spare us some control. I only hope that that is not merely a Yuletide festival spirit but that he will continue in that mood when the House reassembles. We shall do our best to encourage him in that spirit. Nor by any means do I want to suggest that any avoidable secrecy should be maintained. I do not myself take that view.
When I first heard the proposal the point occurred to me that, as the right hon. Gentleman explained, and as is perhaps not universally known, there was no kind of record of any of these speeches. It therefore occurred to me that possibly the memories of those who made speeches at the time may not be entirely impecc- 1412 able, and that when they are produced, as no doubt they will be produced, either in a small trickle or a flood, people might think that they represent something nearer authenticity than in fact they probably do. As far as I can remember I took part in one or two Secret Sessions myself. [Interruption.] I think I am all right in saying that; I shall be stopped if I am not. I was merely about to observe that I have no recollection of what I said, and I would find it quite impossible to reconstruct whatever I did say. I wish to say that so that the general public might be forewarned of that before we are told all the ex post facto wisdom of those who took part in those deliberations. That is the only warning I have to give on behalf of my hon. Friends. We have no desire to oppose the Motion.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)
I feel that this is a somewhat historic occasion, largely because I find myself, for once, having to recall that I found myself in the wrong. When the war started I can recollect urging that secret Debates should take place in order that private Members should have an opportunity, without doing any harm to the national cause, of telling the Government what they thought about them and defence matters. I found that I was wrong. As time went on—I am not going to speak about what we talked about in secret—it is within general knowledge that secret Debates on the whole were used for the purpose of covering up Governmental mistakes and preventing the public from knowing what the truth was. I pass from that. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) was in error about this matter of saying whether one spoke or did not. I always thought that one was not allowed to say whether one spoke in a secret Debate or not. I think you are not allowed to say you spoke in a secret Debate.
§ Mr. Stokes
I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that he could not remember what he talked about. I remember your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and your Ruling was certainly this, that a Member might talk about what was discussed in secret Debate provided it was not secret, but you must not say you heard it in a secret Debate. As I never 1413 heard anything which was secret in a secret Debate I always felt myself quite clear about what I could do, but I do get up against something extremely difficult when I come to the question of garbled versions, to which my right hon. Friend referred. Of many of the secret Debates I have no recollection of any kind whatsoever, but there were one or two in which I was intensely interested. I must not say I spoke in them, because that would be breaking the rule, but it might happen that I made in public statements which I should have made in the secret Debate had I had the opportunity of catching your eye, Mr. Speaker. Now I am in this difficulty if this Motion is passed. I not only have a good memory of things I understand and which I think I know about, but I also have records which, paying great regard to what you said in this House, I have been careful to keep under double lock and key. Am I then to be entitled, if some well-intentioned editor of a newspaper suggests to me that I should write up that particular Debate, to accept whatever enormous sum he offers me in order to make perfectly clear what was discussed and what the points were in the particular matter under discussion? I hope the Lord President of the Council, who knows to what I am referring, will tell me before this Debate finishes how I stand.
On the question of historical record, the Lord President of the Council impressed upon the House the importance of removing this embargo because certain things were decided which naturally were of historical consequence and people would find an ever-increasing difficulty in recollecting what they did or did not hear discussed in Secret Session. The right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, who at that time was speaking sometimes as Leader of the House and sometimes as Foreign Secretary, and sometimes as both, said all sorts of things. He said that he does not now remember what he talked about, and obviously he will be at a great disadvantage when he comes to write his memoirs, if he ever does so, if he is not free absolutely to say the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I want to ask my right hon. Friend another question. There was a subject in which, as the whole House knows, I was particularly interested—and peculiarly right on—a subject on 1414 which certain reports were sent to the Prime Minister, although in my opinion they should have been sent to this House. They were made secret. I want to learn from the Lord President of the Council whether it is the intention of the Government to make those two—I think there were two reports—
§ Mr. Speaker
I would remind the hon. Member that the Motion speaks of "proceedings in this House," and I think reports, which he says were sent to the Prime Minister, were not proceedings in this House.
§ Mr. Stokes
With great respect, if a Committee is set up by this House for the purpose of investigating certain things and chooses to send its report to the Prime Minister and not to this House, surely we have a right to know why they did not send it to the House; or if they decided for special reasons that it was in the public interest that it should go to the Prime Minister, surely we are entitled to ask, when this general amnesty is being granted, that those two reports should be included in it, so that hon. Members may gain full knowledge of what the facts were at that time. Surely if the Committee are responsible to this House their report is part of the proceedings of the House. Am I to be for ever in the position that I must not refer to the fact that those two reports were made because they were made in secret?
§ Mr. Speaker
I admit that I had not realised that the hon. Member was referring to proceedings in a Committee. The Committee is responsible for its own actions, and if it takes those actions it is not necessarily responsible to this House unless this House has insisted on it. Those reports do not necessarily fall under the Motion we are discussing now.
§ Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)
From what my hon. Friend has said it appears to be obvious that some Members of the House kept notes of the proceedings during Secret Sessions, and I wish to ask whether it was not a breach of Privilege to keep a record, even privately, of what transpired in a Secret Session.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
Surely the position was that either the notes or the 1415 statements would have to be related to what took place in Secret Session. That is the great connecting point.
§ Mr. Speaker
I think it would refer to notes of a speech made in Secret Session. An hon. Member might have notes which he had prepared for a speech which he did not deliver.
§ Mr. Stokes
Let me set the minds of hon. Members at rest. I have nothing which conforms to the description of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay). I have not said yet that I spoke in a secret Debate. I have not yet said that I was here at any of the secret Debates. It is true that I said that I had never heard anything that was secret, but still I might not have been here to hear it at all. What I was really thinking about was all manner of things which come naturally into the hands of a Member of Parliament, sometimes used in one set of circumstances and sometimes in another, and I should have great pleasure in recording some things, from my memory and from published records, which would be of great historic interest. But to return to the point on which you set me down, Mr. Speaker, may I ask you how, then, do I proceed? I find myself in this difficulty, that the substance of what really matters, this very great issue, is contained in two reports which this House has never been allowed to see, and am I now never to be allowed to appeal to the Lord President of the Council or the Government Front Bench to make the necessary release which will allow of these documents being made public? It seems to me we are getting into an absurd position. The committee were responsible for investigating certain things at their discretion and reporting to this House. If in a national emergency they decide that the matter is so vital that it should not be made public, and that their report must be sent in secret to the Prime Minister, they can evade their responsibility to this House. I now wish to have the facts made clear, and I can never get the facts so ably and so well portrayed as they have been put in writing by a committee of this House, and I am only asking that those reports should be published. The whole country would be most interested in them, and I feel that now is the proper occasion 1416 for their publication. I hope the Government will receive such good counsel in the matter as will enable them to make those reports available to all Members of the House.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)
The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) is obviously so bursting with anxiety to see this Motion carried, that it makes me suspicious whether it is a good Motion or not. Until he spoke, I thought the Lord President of the Council had made out a good case, with one exception that he spoke of general anxiety to remove the control. When he said that I noticed he could hardly stop laughing himself, and was very surprised at the accord and approbation which came from the benches behind him. I am not sure that this matter is quite so easy as one might imagine. I am wondering what safeguards there are against one hon. Member alleging that another hon. Member said something in Secret Session. There is no check on that at all. No record exists, and it would be open for any hon. Member to say that another hon. Member said something which he may, or may not, have said and it would not be actionable, and there would be no remedy against a person being very gravely slandered.
There is the matter of persons who are no longer hon. Members of this House and the converse of that, hon. Members of this House who were not hon. Members at the time when Secret Sessions took place, and I wonder what is the result of a communication, made from an hon. Member of the last House to an hon. Member of this House. I feel there are certain difficulties which have not perhaps been fully appreciated. I want to put this suggestion to the Lord President of the Council; there being no record of what has taken place, I imagine there must be fairly considerable records of some of the speeches made during those Debates. One has noticed an increasing tendency during the past few years for Front Bench speeches to be read, and it may well be that there are in existence written records of some of the speeches which have been made. If these things are to be made public, it would be desirable that at least an accurate record should be made. I suggest that such speeches as are available in writing, should be published, because that would ensure that such a record was accurate. 1417 I ask that, if the Lord President of the Council can collate any existing speeches, if they are available, he will publish them to ensure accuracy.
§ Mr. Stokes
On a point of Order. Is not the hon. Member proposing a thing which is absolutely impossible? It is in your recollection, Mr. Speaker, that there are instances where it is suggested that the official record has been tampered with and in my recollection where it was tampered with, and there was a row in this House. Surely it is not suggested that speeches, not recorded at the time, should be made available now.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
It seems to me that an hon. Member may have made a speech in a Secret Session which he would not have made, if he thought that his words would ever be reported. One may imagine that an hon. Member serving in the Army—I hasten to say I did not do this and it is not a breach of Privilege to say that—may have felt it incumbent upon him to make severe criticisms of his divisional commander, or methods of training in his unit, under a pledge of strict secrecy and on the understanding that it would never be divulged to any living soul. He would feel that in the highest opinions he was being disloyal to superiors, and he would not want it to be known even after the war.
As I understand it, speeches in Secret Session were made under the impression that they would never be made public. One may say these speeches will never be made public, but that it will only be parts of what is said to have been said which will be made public. That seems to me to make it more dangerous, because in the old days Parliament only took to official reporting because it was found to be an intolerable nuisance to have secondhand, and often fictitious, accounts published. It seems to me, we are getting back to the same position, and it would be wrong to provide this large amount of pabulum for the gossip writer of the future, and it may be entire guess work. Let us leave this thing decently buried where it is.
§ Mr. Stokes
May I ask the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) a question? Is he suggesting that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leamington (Mr. Eden) should be prevented from 1418 writing his memoirs, because he cannot remember what he said in Secret Session?
§ Mr. Nicholson
I do not think the right hon. Member for Leamington is in the same difficulty as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes). Everyone knows that, on every single occasion possible, the hon. Member for Ipswich speaks.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I do pity the hon. Member for Ipswich, because I am quite sure he never remembers what he said, and if he had spoken there would be a complete blank left for the recording angel.
It is unnecessary to rake up all these things. I think there is a slight element of breach of trust. People made speeches under the impression that they would be completely secret for evermore. It may have been that an attack on a foreign nation might be made, or one might have accused President Roosevelt of something dreadful, and would not like it to be known.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
To take this discussion back to the personal point of view, I think that if I told anyone anything in confidence, that person would not be free until I released him from that confidence. I agree with the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) and I am perfectly sure that things were said which would not have been said at all if it was felt that at any time in the future there was going to be a release. There must be something very serious and punishable in some way, although in this House I know there is absolute Privilege. Supposing an hon. Member made a malicious, completely untrue statement of what another hon. Member had said, and it hit the headlines, it would put the attacked hon. Member in a very serious position, and there may be something—we know there are certain degrees of privilege 1419 and if there is malice it often does destroy privilege, but in the House of Commons, I am perfectly well aware there is absolute Privilege—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council could say something about that.
Are we really entitled, in this new House of Commons, to revoke a decision taken by an old House of Commons? After all, as the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) said, there are awkward situations as some hon. Members were in both Parliaments, some lost their seats in the last election and some became hon. Members in the last election. It is quite obvious we who were in the last Parliament were in Secret Sessions and, possibly, even talked to ex-Members of Parliament about what happened in Secret Session, but can ex-Members of Parliament discuss with new Members of Parliament what happened in Secret Session? Either Parliament is a continuous body or it ceases to be a body with one Parliament and becomes a new body at the begining of the next. I would also like to ask the right hon. Gentleman this question. I am sure he has given the matter greater consideration than I have. This is called the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it is a differently constituted body from that which was in existence during the war. Can this new House of Commons relieve hon. Members who spoke in the old House of Commons from the confidence which they were promised?
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)
I do not think we should dwell on the aspect referred to by the hon. Gentleman who has just resumed his seat, because, as I understand the position, if Parliament and its personnel change from time to time, Parliament still goes on. It is the custom to read from hon. Members' speeches. I think those of us who were present at the Secret Sessions never thought there was any necessity for guarded and carefully worded statements from Members of the Government Front Bench. I understood that the secrecy referred to back benchers and to front benchers with equal force. Secrecy was imposed on Members, and Cabinet Ministers had no privilege. I would like an assurance that if there exist in writing speeches delivered by Members of the 1420 Government during those Secret Sessions, they will be destroyed, because we relied so much on secrecy that the only person who could give a direction or make a record would be Mr. Speaker himself. The Official Reporters were withdrawn. This applies with equal force to hon. Members, including back bench Members who carefully prepared their speeches. I do not think I am infringing the law in regard to Secret Sessions by saying that in Secret Session many things were said which hon. Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen would never have got away with in open Session. If such documents exist today, I consider it would be a breach of faith if we let loose the stuff contained in documents which may have been kept, even by front bench Members. I do not think right hon. Gentlemen who held responsible posts in the Government during the war should have the exclusive publishing rights, so that an hon. Member would find in any memoirs which might be written, something which, from his recollection, was a quotation from a document used at a Secret Session. I think my right hon. Friend ought to give us some assurance upon that, because I think a back bencher has just as much right in this matter as anyone who sat on the front bench during the war.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)
I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, what was done with regard to Secret Sessions during the last war? Was any record made of those proceedings? Secondly, I would like to ask him whether the Government, before bringing forward this Motion, considered what would be the likely effect of the decision to publish a record of the proceedings in future Secret Sessions, if right hon. Gentleman and hon. Gentlemen know, as they did not know when the Secret Sessions were held during the war, that there would be a record of the proceedings. Have the Government considered whether it would be likely to weaken the value of those Secret Sessions?
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Major Gates (Middleton and Prestwich)
I wanted to ask a question for guidance. If this Motion is carried, will you, Sir, or will this House retain any redress or sanction which can be used against any report purporting to be a report of a Secret Session in this House which hon. 1421 Members, in their recollection, may think is garbled or even inaccurate? Also, do His Majesty's Government propose, if any hon. Member desires to write an article or a report about a Secret Session, that it will have to be submitted to you, Sir, or to a Committee of this House for its accuracy to be tested?
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Butcher (Holland with Boston)
I think the Lord President of the Council has very clearly indicated the difficulty in which this House finds itself. However, I think if there is to be publication by hon. and right hon. Members of certain speeches which they themselves may say they made in Secret Session, we are going to be in a very great difficulty. After all, the House at that time went into Secret Session, and not into a Session the publications of the reports of which should be delayed. We went into Secret Session so that hon. Members would be in a position to speak with frankness, and perhaps so that they would not have to pick and choose their words as they would have to do if the whole Press of the world were listening to them. Therefore, while I fully appreciate the difficulties of all of us who were present in the House in the earlier Sessions, I feel we would probably place ourselves in fewer difficulties if we allowed the matter to take its course naturally, rather than pass this Motion which would release the flood gates of recollection and, perhaps, imagination.
§ Mr. Stokes
May I put a question to my hon. Friend before he sits down? Does he suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), who never recollects anything he says, writes his memoirs, and I recollect something he did say, supposing he did speak, I am entitled to say that he has broken the law in regard to Secret Sessions and therefore he will get himself into trouble? It seems to me that we shall get into a hopeless jam.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)
In this matter I can speak as an outsider. I was not a Member of the House during these Secret Sessions, but I do know, as an ordinary member of the general public, that very great interest was taken in the activities of this House at that time. We did not know what was going on; we guessed sometimes, but we knew nothing. 1422 I agree that this House can be complimented on the fact that the general public never knew anything about what went on in Secret Session. It was one of the outstanding facts of this war that so many things could be done for the benefit of the community, and that people who knew about them, because they knew the affairs of the country were at stake, kept very quiet about them. This applies not only to Members of this House, but to ordinary men all over the country. At any rate, this House should be complimented on that.
What the general public want to know, and it is right that they should know—I think we should have regard not to what Members of the present or the past House of Commons think about it, but to what the general public want to know—are the matters which were discussed and the decisions which were made. That is all the ordinary people of the country want to know. As regards what hon. Members actually said or what they thought about one another, I think, generally speaking, the people of this country will be very glad to hear what anybody said about anybody else. So far as that is concerned, let us have a free-for-all. Let us have no restrictions. Hon. Members who sat in this House then must learn how to take care of themselves, and out of this welter of contradiction and statement, possibly a certain amount of truth will emerge.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Macmillan (Bromley)
I do not wish to make heavy weather about this matter; but there is one point which I would like to clarify once more, for the sake of the record. In moving the Motion, the right hon. Gentleman said that it would be to the advantage of history. Unfortunately, that is not quite accurate. It would be to the advantage of gossip and not of history. Had we thought at the time that a Motion of this kind would be passed, it would really have been much better if we had an Official Record made of the speeches and carefully preserved under Mr. Speaker's care or under the care of one of his officers in the House. At the due moment, an actual and accurate record could be released for scholars and historians of what actually was said. That could have been done in the same way as, after a period of time, the despatches of Ambassadors and the papers of Government Departments 1423 are made available. We have the accurate despatches. We have what the Ambassador really did write and what the Foreign Secretary really did telegraph back in reply to him.
We ought to warn the public of the danger that we shall never get any historical benefit from the passing of this Motion, and that we shall never have any accurate and historical account of the proceedings. As for what the hon. Member who last spoke said about decisions and so forth being published, all that side of it would be a very jejune affair, because the decisions were not the important part of the Secret Sessions. What was important was the speeches, the tone of the speeches, the things that were said. Those are the important things when men meet in council together. It is what Ministers say to each other in Cabinet meetings or what they telegraph in secret to our representatives that is important. It is the kind of way we talked under conditions of secrecy that is important, and not so much the decisions taken by the House, which were not really of great importance.
If we decide to pass the Motion I hope it will go out in every way that there will be no historical accuracy in any accounts which may be given of what somebody remembers or thinks he remembers of what somebody else said. We ought to give warning to people not to regard such statements as having historical value in any way. There will be a distinction between them and the kind of State paper released at the appropriate time for the use of historians. What we shall get will be the kind of report which was published in the 18th century of what was said to be the Proceedings and speeches of the House of Commons, and which were acrate only when they were compiled from the actual manuscripts of the great orators of those days. They will have very little value. We ought to impress that point upon the public, if we are to be treated to a flood of gossip, newspaper articles and stories of what this or that man said or did not say, not only about our own people, but perhaps about great foreign Statesmen, and about the difficulties that faced us in various parts of the world. The records will have no value, and should not be taken by serious historians as an accurate account of Debates in this House.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Logan (Liverpool, Scotland)
I should like to make a few observations on this Motion. I heard an hon. Member say that there must be split minds in the House. If secrecy during the war is to be cancelled, the first matter that should be revealed to the public is the truth of any observations which might emanate as a result of that cancellation. I do not know how the British public will view statements that might be made by hon. Members of this House giving personal experiences of Secret Sessions. I find that memory gets very bad in regard to present matters, let alone secret affairs during the war, and I am very much afraid that garbled statements will be given to the public. I have read Aesop's Fables and I have heard about Ananias; I am afraid there might be a bit of each in such statements.
During the Secret Sessions, Members spoke freely because the country was in extremis. To write memoirs or titbits of gossip for the British public to read would have no value for the public. In my humble opinion the secrecy of those Sessions did well for England and it would be much better for this House to let those Sessions remain as secrets. I do not know what is in the minds of Ministers. I only know what is in my own mind. I have read condemnations and criticisms of history, and I know that it is very hard to get at the truth. There is usually a bias, and we have many biases in this House. I would not like any Member of this House, after revealing, in a partisan manner, things that have gone on, to be regarded as an authority. I am afraid that future generations, in 15 or 20 years, when judging writings emanating from would-be historians in the House, will not find many Venerable Bedes among them.
I know there is a feeling that the public would like the truth about the Secret Sessions, but those Sessions were the glory of this country and were beneficial to the whole nation. Many Members would not like the valuable things that happened during the crisis to be known at all. I ask Ministers, What purpose is there in this proposal, except gossip? What would be the use of publishing these things? No one in this House could definitely guarantee as true any statement that he published. Anything that gave a wrong view to the public would be bad for them and for the reputation of the House of 1425 Commons. Unless there is a good reason and justification for it, it would be more discreet not to have the proposed cancellation.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)
As one who, in the early Secret Sessions, was under grave suspicion, I would like to make a remark or two on the matter. I would like information, if the Minister would give it. I am all for the Motion, and for making public anything that happened, but I am afraid that hon. Members will be disappointed if they expect to learn any secrets. It has to be remembered that there was usually a packed House of about 600 Members each time, and that it would have been very undesirable for any Minister to give away matters of serious strategical importance. Nobody expected Ministers to do so. We did, however, have many very interesting discussions, and if the Motion is carried I for one will be exceptionally truthful, though I cannot say that I am certain hon. Members on the other side will follow my example.
That is one of the great difficulties in a matter of this kind. If a speech is made in this House and something of a questionable character is said, it can be quoted outside the House from the Official Report—it can be quoted in the Press or on the platform and the person who quotes it is free from the law of libel. The law of libel in this country is very tricky; I wrote an article, a quiet persuasive article, on that subject a few months ago, and when it went into the hands of the lawyers they told me there were six possible libels in it, and it had to be modified in all those places. There are certain things I would like to say about certain Members and the part they took in the Secret Sessions, and if I say them and give what I consider to be quotations from their speeches, shall I be subject to the law of libel, or can we get the law of libel suspended so far as it relates to the Secret Sessions? If not, it will be very difficult to discuss some of the subjects and some of the Members. At the same time, even risking the law of libel, I am in favour of the ban being withdrawn, to allow us to dig out everything we can for presentation to the public. It will not do a great deal of harm if two hon. Members give two different accounts of the same Secret Session, say at some 1426 conference which they may be attending, There will always be that possibility, and it will stimulate further discussion.
So, generally speaking it will be to the good if we are able to persuade the people of this country that, even though it was not possible for Ministers to divulge any serious matters of strategy or equipment, there were many things of historical interest discussed which can be revealed now that the danger is passed. I do not know whether any hon. Members will consider it worth while to draw attention to the fact that suspicion was directed against me by this House in Secret Session, and I am not giving any consideration to that. Although I happened to be the person involved, this House manifested a consideration and magnanimity which I appreciated very highly. In view of all the facts, some that may be bad but others that will be good, I think it is desirable that the ban should be lifted, and that the people of the country should get to hear from various sources the different items that we discussed and —this is important—the attitude of the Members of this House at a very perilous time. I think it is important that the atmosphere of that particular time should be given; it is more important even than the actual questions discussed.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
I am much obliged to the House for the very friendly discussion on this Motion. I was considering whether I should say that I was grateful to the House for the friendly way in which the Motion has been received, but it is a little difficult to classify the discussion. It has certainly not been bitter or hostile, but whether one can say that it has been entirely cordial and unanimous I am a little doubtful. I hope that the explanations I am now about to give will enable the House to sec its way to give general assent to the Motion which I have put before it.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) said that he did not object to the Motion, and on the whole he was friendly about it. He did raise the point, which indeed has been raised by other hon. Gentlemen, as to what would be done about inaccurate reports. Here I can clear the decks with my hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan), and say that this is not a Motion for the 1427 promotion of reports. That is not the point. It is a Motion lifting the ban on the production of reports, if anybody wishes to make reference to what happened in Secret Session. There is no obligation on the authorities, or upon the Government, as a result of the carrying of this Motion, to publish reports of what happened. There is merely a liberty for the Officers of the House to include in the Journals of the House such ordinary notes of proceedings as they would have made if the House had not been sitting in Secret Session.
With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) about the law of libel, I entirely agree with him that it is a very tricky subject, and I would say to him that as there are not, and will not be, any authentic records of what was said in the House, I would not if I were he "chance my arm" by saying outside what somebody said inside the House. If it should prove that he is inaccurate, he might well be guilty of an offence under the law of slander or libel. Having given him that free advice, without being a Law Officer of the Crown, I hope he will count it to me for righteousness.
As I understand the situation, in the new circumstances there are three checks against irresponsibility. If a Member in the House were to proceed in the course of debate to allege that another Member in the last Parliament had, in Secret Session, said so and so, and were to proceed to give an account, particularly a garbled account, there being no record, it would presumably be a matter for your consideration, Mr. Speaker, as to whether that was within the limits of reasonable fairness in the conduct of debate. Clearly, the criticised Member would be at a disadvantage if there were no authentic record of the debate, and that would be a matter entirely for Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Morrison
Mr. Speaker sometimes rules other than under Standing Orders. Possibly a prima facie case for a Ruling by Mr. Speaker might arise, but it is not for me to say what Mr. Speaker would rule.
§ Mr. Morrison
That is true, but obviously it is a matter of equity and fairness, if Members were to allege that they were quoting when there is no authentic record of what really was said.
§ Mr. Eden
I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but I think this is rather important. I do not understand how protection could be given in those circumstances. I do not see under what practice or precedent it could be done. The right hon. Gentleman said it would be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and I do not see how it could be so. Of course if you say it could be, I should be very glad to hear it.
§ Mr. Speaker
This is rather a hypothetical matter, and I do not quite know how the situation might arise. Suppose that a Member of the last Parliament was unfairly attacked. My first course would be to rise in the Chair to stop the speaker. But if we were to pursue it, I am inclined to think that it might become a prima facie case for the Committee of Privileges.
§ Mr. Morrison
I hope I may be excused for any presumption on my part. I said that a prima facie case might arise for the consideration of Mr. Speaker. The second point I want to make is that, of course, there is in any case no right of publication of Parliamentary Proceedings. Parliament forbears to interfere with publications that do take place, and there is formally no right of publication of Parliamentary Debates or proceedings. Therefore, if a person outside the House were to use reports of Secret Session Proceedings or indeed other Proceedings which were inaccurate, malicious or twisted, the House could regard that as a matter of Privilege if it so desired. That is the second avenue of protection.
§ Earl Winterton
Surely, the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that an ipse dixit of the House or of Mr. Speaker will cause a matter to be treated as a question of Privilege. It is far more complicated than that. If anything of the kind arose, it would have to be referred to the Committee of Privileges and they would have to take evidence to see whether a breach of Privilege had been committed.
§ Mr. Morrison
I contemplated that it would go through the proper procedure and channels. I said that the power with regard to Privilege would remain with the House in regard to all publications of its Proceedings. The other point is that if things are said outside which are inaccurate or involve malice, the people concerned are open to take the remedy afforded by the law of libel and slander. Therefore, I do not think the House need have any apprehension that in passing this Motion we shall be automatically opening the floodgates to a whole lot of garbled or malicious reports.
§ Mr. Morrison
I said that if there were an inaccurate or malicious report and therefore a prima facie case of libel or slander, I should have thought that any person who considered himself injured by such a statement made outside the House would be entitled to bring an action for slander. The right hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington asked how is the person making the statement to be proved accurate or not. That is one of the risks which the purveyors of these statements would run. I should have thought there would be an additional risk if there were no record and therefore they could get no proof that the statement was actually made. I should have thought that in such a case the risk of damages would be possibly increased. In any case, people must think about that possibility.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that it might not be a question of personal slanders? What would be the position if I wished to discredit the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) and accused his party of atrocious conduct politically, or if I said that the Labour Party in the House had proved themselves to be defeatist, or if some hon. Member opposite said that about the Conservative Party? Statements of that sort would be just as serious as statements involving personal injury.
§ Mr. Morrison
It is not for me to get unduly far into a legal disquisition, but I have always understood that one could say pretty well what one liked about a political party collectively without much fear of an action in law, but that one must be very careful in what one said about individuals in those parties. I think that might be the answer to the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). I make these observations only in order to do what I can to clear away apprehensions which appear to exist that if the Motion is passed it will automatically open the floodgates to all sorts of irresponsible and garbled accounts of what happened in Secret Session without there being any remedies. The remedies may be unsatisfactory, but there are possible remedies, and there are some considerations which people must bear in mind.
§ Mr. Marlowe
What is to be the protection if it is alleged that some member of the House who was killed in the war, or has died since the Secret Session, said certain things in that Secret Session? There is no protection for such a person under the law of libel.
§ Mr. Morrison
That unhappy circumstance would obtain whether the thing was said in Parliament, at a meeting of company shareholders, or anywhere else. It is bad luck if a man is libelled after he is dead and cannot answer back. I cannot deal with many of the points that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), whom I congratulate upon having enjoyed himself so well. I am not as skilful as he is, and if I tried to answer him about the reports of the Select Committee which were sent to the then Prime Minister, I am afraid I might find myself out of Order. Perhaps he would not mind if we were to leave the matter to another day and occasion. My hon. Friend referred to garbled accounts, and I have sought to deal with that matter as best I could. The hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe) made much the same point with regard to possibly inaccurate references by one Member to what another Member said. As to the question whether the Government propose to publish any reports, we do not have any such intention, and indeed the records do not exist. It is possible that some hon. or right hon. Gentlemen spoke from full notes at the time and may still have those full notes, 1431 but it would be wrong for the Government to take those notes and publish them, and we do not propose to do so. Therefore, we as a Government and the House as a House will, I presume, be responsible for no reports whatever, except such very short notes of Proceedings as appear in the Journals of the House.
The hon. Member for Farnham said that it may have been the case that when hon. Members were speaking in Secret Session they may have said sincerely things which they would not have said in public Session. It may be, for instance, that a member of the Army may have made critical observations on his divisional commander and would be embarrassed if now they were to be referred to publicly. I see the point of that, but I come back to the main principle of the case, which is that the only reason for which the Government, and the only reason, I suggest, for which the House could reasonably have gone into Secret Session was on security grounds to prevent the enemy from knowing things which otherwise he might have known. If, then, in the course of the Debates hon. Members proceeded to make speeches of a character which they would not have made in public, irrespective of the security issue, I think we cannot very well take that into account at the present time. We were and are solely concerned with the security issue. If now any hon. Member would feel a little ashamed of an attack which he made on, say, his divisional commander becoming known, I think he had better not have made the attack at the time.
§ Mr. Bowles
Supposing that a very important Member of the last Government had made a very damaging and traducing attack on the head of another State—[Hon. Members: "He would have been out of Order."]— what would be the position? Perhaps I might have a word with my right hon. Friend later on this, because I think it would be a real international danger.
§ Mr. Morrison
I am not saying, and neither is my hon. Friend, whether that is so or not, but this I will say, in general terms, to my hon. Friend. In so far as there might be any such possibility, or other possibilities of an embarrassing character, the Government have taken them fully into account. We have considered all the possible instances which 1432 might, for one reason or another, be embarrassing and we do not think, on balance, that the House need to be worried on that point. That is the personal judgment which I and my colleagues have reached. The hon. Member for Farnham also said that the impression at the time was that there would be secrecy for evermore. I am not sure about that. I would very much doubt whether those participating in Secret Session were sworn to secrecy for evermore. There was in my mind the assumption that at some time the ban would be lifted or that somehow things would begin to come out. I think that Members were not legitimately under the impression that there would be secrecy for all time.
I think I have covered the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles). There was the point about malicious reports, and he went on to the point of whether this House, being a later House, was entitled to act in a different way. But vis-a-vis this matter of secrecy, Parliament is a continuing institution, and we repeal Acts of Parliament. There will be a Bill presently repealing the Trades Disputes Act, 1927. I agree that it is not a perfect analogy, but nevertheless, this Parliament is entitled to judge whether it is or is not in the public interest that secrecy should continue. I see the point, but this is a legitimate thing for the House to do. I think I have dealt with the point of the hon. Member for Dumbartonshire (Mr. McKinlay) as to the question of any record. As there is no record, he need not be apprehensive.
§ Mr. McKinlay
There were speeches delivered which were in manuscript, and I want an assurance that no Member of the late Government or of the present Government—
§ Mr. Speaker
If the hon. Member says that speeches were made in manuscript, he is disclosing something. He should have said that there may have been speeches made in manuscript.
§ Mr. McKinlay
I qualify that, Mr. Speaker, by saying that there may have been speeches made in manuscript. I want to be assured that on a future date, possibly not very far away, no Member, either of this Government or of the last Government, should use any of those speeches in preparing a memoir.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
No, Sir, if it were the case that an hon. or right hon. Gentleman spoke from full notes and had a manuscript and he wished to publish what he thought he had said, this Motion does not prevent him from doing it, but, on the contrary, enables him to do it. I do not see why he should not; there is no question of the Government doing it. I will come back to the point later in dealing with another aspect of the matter. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) spoke of what happened in the last war. What happened after the last war was that the corresponding Defence Regulation remained in force until all the outstanding Regulations lapsed in 1921. There was evidently a greater feeling of secrecy in those days than there is on the part of the present Administration. It is true that the ban on secrecy in the last war has never been lifted. That is a point both for me and against me—a point for me in virtue and against me in precedent. But the scale of secrecy was greater on this occasion. There were many more Secret Sessions and it was not thought right to take action after 1918. I thought that the ban was bad and ought to have been lifted. The fact that the Defence Regulation was repealed and the Privilege ban was not lifted did not prevent, if my memory serves me rightly, one or two very distinguished statesmen embodying in memoirs what they or someone else said in some Secret Sessions of Parliament and no action was taken by the House or by the Committee of Privileges upstairs. We had better face the fact that this has to be put right and there is no use keeping the ban on when we know the ban will not be observed.
§ Mr. Bowles
In regard to memoirs of eminent statesmen of the last war, did I understand my right hon. Friend to say that Mr. Lloyd George made a certain statement in some Secret Session?
§ Mr. Morrison
I am speaking from memory and I said nothing about Mr. Lloyd George. [Interruption.] My recollection is that they could get over all that; after a time, it was assumed that the ban was no longer operative. It is better to face that at this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Mr. Braddock) said fairly—and Members of the old House would be grateful—that as far as we know the House was very good 1434 in keeping the secrets of Secret Sessions. I believe that that was so, and when one remembers that there were 615 people involved, it is very creditable. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bromley (Mr. H. Macmillan) raised a point about the historical significance of it, and that if there was no record, no data could be added to history. I confess that on the historical point I am confined to two pleadings in defence. One is, that the authorities of the House will be able to complete the gaps in the Commons Journal. That is some factual information of what happened and raw material for history, as far as it goes. It may be that things will be said elsewhere or some speeches may be published. I am not inciting anybody to publish speeches. It will also add to our historical knowledge of the time. This is the best I can do. It is the production of raw material for history, not a full and comprehensive historical contribution.
He raised the point whether it would be better that an official record should be made. I see the point, but there was no record at the time. If reporters had been in the gallery, there would have been many points of Order as to whether it was a Secret Session. There were no reporters, records do not exist, and there can be no authentic report. I have dealt with points raised by other hon. Members. I am obliged to the House for what has been an exceedingly interesting and clear discussion. I was ready, and I had the anticipation that we might have got into an interesting and tangled discussion about this before we had done with it. The House has been remarkably clear. The discussion has been very fair, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions, and I hope that the House —though I recognise by some shaking of heads that there is doubt in some quarters —will agree to this Motion.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Williams (Torquay)
I thought this was a very clear Debate until the right hon. Gentleman began his speech, but he has managed, so far as I am concerned, rather to confuse the issue.
§ Mr. Williams
No, it is very unusual, if I may say so, from the right hon. Gen- 1435 tleman, who began his speech in a Christmas-like spirit when he talked about Members saying things about each other. I am not controverting that, but I was a little worried later on, because I was afraid that other hon. Members might be accusing me of being a blackleg lawyer, and that would have been a horrible position. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that, as far as the last war is concerned, at any rate, there is a different precedent. I do not see why we should be ruled, in a matter of this sort, purely by precedent. In all probability, it would be a very good thing if, at some time, there could be a rather fuller report than the right hon. Gentleman has suggested of what actually happened in these Secret Sessions. I know there could be no true report, in the sense of its having been taken down, but might it not be possible to reach some sort of agreement whereby the general lines of the Debates could be given, so that the public would have something which, if not fully accurate, would be rather more accurate than the sort of thing which I, or any other hon. Gentleman, might say about what we thought happened two or three years ago? I think that point is worth considering.
It is rather a pity that we are being asked to pass this Motion tonight in a comparatively thin House, when a great deal of doubt has been expressed from many different quarters and from the opposite side as much as from this side of the House, and when we really have not got down to considering what is to be the effect of the Motion. I wonder whether it might not be possible, as we are now at the end of a Session, and in view of these very great doubts, to meet the wishes of the House, not necessarily by postponing this Motion indefinitely, but by allowing us to have a look at it, and to work it out in negotiations between the Front Benches. These always make things very much easier. There might also be consultations between the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes), who seems to have some bee in his bonnet on this matter. Perhaps the Noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) might also help, as Father of the House.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman must realise that, in regard to the record, I alone am responsible for it, and, therefore, the hon. Member is suggesting that I should do these things. I submit that I cannot do this during the Recess, and I do not feel prepared to do so at the moment.
§ Mr. Williams
I very much regret that I should infringe on your privileges, Mr. Speaker. Of course, obviously, such a record would not be possible on those lines, and I should be the very last, Sir, to wish to take away any of your privileges. On the other hand, I do not think it would be quite fair to put the burden on your shoulders, Mr. Speaker, and I say so with very great respect. I seriously suggest that, in a matter such as this, which the House has not considered very deeply and of which it has not been apprised for very long, the Government should give us time to think over it again. The Government themselves do not seem very anxious to lift the veil of secrecy at Question Time. I think further consideration should be given to this matter and that we should deal with it after the Christmas Recess, when we have had a real chance to consider it.
§ Mr. Stokes
Did I understand the Leader of the Opposition correctly? Did he not state that, in general, he agreed to the Motion, from which the House would understand that he had seen and understood it?
§ Mr. Williams
I am not responsible for the leaders of any party. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman had excellent reasons for what he said, but that is no reason why we should not ask for further time. I urge the House to take a line which I think we might well take. We have had a very friendly discussion, and I do not want to take the matter out of that sphere, but, would it not be better, when we come back after Christmas, for the Government to put a stronger case then they have put tonight, perhaps with some amplification of the legal side of the matter as well?
That no proceeding in this House during the last Parliament held in Secret Session be any longer secret.