§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ Lord ROBERT CECIL
This is a Bill which, as I understand it, is for the consolidation and re-enactment of two Acts which were passed in August or September. There are one or two Amendments, but I do not know that they are really of very great importance; they are mainly a matter of machinery. The only one which I have been able to see which seems to me of considerable substance is the second Sub-section of the first Clause of the Bill in reference to that I would like to say a word of explanation as to exactly what is meant. I dare say it is all very right and proper, but I do not myself quite understand what is meant by—Any such regulations may provide for the suspension of any restrictions on the acquisition of user of land.…I should like to know exactly what it is desired to do in regard to that Sub-section, which does not appear to me to be required, as you already have the powers given under paragraph (b) of Clause 1. But this is a matter of comparatively small importance. The real point on 910 which I desire to direct the attention of the House is paragraph (c) of Clause 1. It is old, having been passed into law, and we are asked to re-enact it. It gives the Government power—(c) to prevent the spread of reports likely to cause disaffection, or alarm.Those words seem to me to be extremely wide. I do not quite know how far the Government intend to take them. As they stand they seem to cover a very very large area. They practically enable the Government to suppress any reports of any kind of which they disapprove. It does not matter whether the reports are true or untrue. They may be perfectly true, but the Government are still entitled under that paragraph to suppress them altogether, and not only to suppress them, but to bring anyone who spreads them before a court-martial. That is a very extreme power, under the circumstances, to give to any Government. I should like to know exactly what "disaffection" means. It is not disaffection to His Majesty or disaffection to the Crown; it is simply "disaffection." Does it mean disaffection to the Government? Does it mean that the Government would be entitled to bring before a court-martial anyone who publishes—I am putting an extreme case, and I do not say the Government would do this—reports which were not in any way damaging to the interests of the country, but were damaging to the interests of the Government? If so, the Government would be entitled to bring a man committing that offence before a court-martial, and he would have no defence, the Government having proved that the report was likely to cause disaffection to the Government. We come to the words "or alarm." These are surely very extreme indeed. A report might not be unfavourable to anyone at home. I presume it means in connection with the War, though that is not specifically stated. Some misfortune or some reverse may take place, say, and anyone casually spreading a report—which might be perfectly true and not exaggerated in any way—of that reverse, from the mere fact that it was likely to cause alarm would be liable to be brought before a court-martial or before a Court of Summary Jurisdiction and sent to prison for six months. Observe that this does not mean reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm, such as would injure our military interests. It is not that, because that is all dealt with in paragraph (e). 911 This is a very wide provision, for it gives power to the Government to make regulations—to prevent assistance being given to the enemy, or the successful prosecution of the War being endangered.That is to say, that under the Act, and so far as I am concerned I have no quarrel with these words, although they are very very wide indeed, power is given to the Government to make it a criminal offence to interfere directly or indirectly with the War. That is all that was required. To go on and say that you are to be entitled to issue regulations making it a criminal offence to spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm does seem to me to give a very wide power indeed to the Government, and I must honestly add that I think they are very liable to create the impression that the Government—I will not say desire—might conceivably use such power to keep the people in the dark unnecessarily as to the events of the War. I am quite sure that I shall have the assent of the whole House, including the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, when I say that nothing would be more disastrous to the morale of the people of this country, and nothing would be more likely to endanger our success in the War than the impression, if it were ever allowed to get about, that the Government were not dealing openly and frankly, so far as possible, with the people of the country, and were not taking them into their confidence. In this case the old Liberal maxim surely applies, if it ever applied, with immense force, that if we are to carry on this War, as I have no doubt we shall do, to a successful conclusion, it will only be done by the Government of the day reposing complete trust and confidence in the manhood, vigour, and courage of the people.
§ Sir HENRY CRAIK
I have certainly no wish to embarrass the Government, but I desire to rise and emphasise the considerations urged by the Noble Lord behind me. I think if we look at the words hon. Members will agree that there are some reasons for thinking that the powers given in the Clause to which the Noble Lord has referred will and are contemplated to be used in a direction which might be dangerous. In September an alarm arose with regard to the presence of spies in England, 912 and one newspaper in particular wrote on the matter. I am not concerned with that alarm or with the articles in the newspaper. It might have been entirely wrong. It might have been exaggerated. I think, myself, it was in some cases exaggerated. But an alarm of that sort could not possibly interfere with the carrying on with success of warlike operations. But is the right hon. Gentleman quite sure that some of those acting for the Government will not use the words of this Clause to call any such statements as appear in newspapers with regard to spies statements of alarm for which they might be prosecuted? I direct attention to a letter written from the Press Bureau by the officials acting on behalf of it on the 8th September, 1914. The Secretary to the Bureau urged upon a particular newspaper in very peremptory terms the cessation of those articles upon spies. As to whether he did that rightly or wrongly, I pronounce no opinion. When the newspaper in question doubted whether he had power to do so, his answer was to refer him to this particular Clause and to say it gave the Secretary of State power—I use his own words—"to make his desire for suppression effective." That surely was a claim based upon the words of this Clause. It was a claim that the Secretary of State had power to bring the editor of this paper before a court-martial on the ground that he had raised alarm in this particular—an alarm which might be exaggerated, but was not calculated to interfere in any way with the carrying on of the War.
Is there not a little doubt, even if we take the last speech of the Solicitor-General, made on the 12th November, and compare two passages in that speech, as to what view is precisely entertained in carrying out the powers under this Clause? In that speech the Solicitor-General said the public should be guardedfrom being depressed by the circulation of untrue statements with regard to disasters on land or sea.The word "untrue" in that sentence of the Solicitor-General's met with universal assent. We all want to stop the circulation of untrue statements, and we desire that the Government should have power to stop those untrue statements in the future. There is no desire to interfere with that power, but in another part of his speech the Solicitor-General seemed to contemplate the use of this power in a very different way. He said:—Criticism of the Government, or Members of the Government, is not that which I ever stopped.913 But he goes on to say:—Except it is of such a character that it might destroy public confidence in the Government which at the moment is charged with the conduct of the War.That extends your power very considerably beyond the stopping of untrue statements or criticism. If the impression gets abroad that this Clause is intended to stop not only the circulation of untrue statements—you have ample powers to bring home responsibility for untrue ctatements to anybody who utters them or circulates them in public, and no one would deny the power of stopping and punishing severely any such action—but if the suspicion is aroused in the minds of the people of this country that you have the power to stop any statement that may cause alarm, however justified and well founded, it is another matter, because it attributes to the nation a feeling of timidity and nervousness which is an insult to the nation and which is untrue. And it is injurious, because it is precisely the method that gives rise to lack of confidence, to distrust and suspicion, when the realities of disaster, which we all know must occur in the course of a long war, are concealed. Nothing can produce greater evil or more disturbance, or more likelihood of panic than the powers given under this Clause, if they contemplate the stopping of any reports however well founded, which may give ground for reasonable alarm.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. McKenna)
The points referred to both by the Noble Lord, and the hon. Member relate to the Clause in the Bill which were in the original Act, and has been the foundation of the action of the Press Bureau for some months. I think I ought to remind the House that the Act authorises the issue of Orders in Council, and in the Orders in Council will be seen the precise operative words under which the Government arts. Now as regards this Sub-section (c) of Section 1 of the Act, there are two paragraphs in the Order in Council which deal with it. The first is paragraph 14 of the Order in Council of the 12th August. It is as follows:—No person shall, without lawful authority, publish or communicate any information with respect to the movement or disposition of any of the forces, ships or war material of His Majesty, or any of His Majesty's Allies, or with respect to the plans of any such 914 naval or military operations by any such forces or ships, or with respect to any works or measures undertaken for or connected with the fortification or defence of any place, if the information is such as is calculated to be or might be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy.I understand, so far as that Section of the Order in Council goes there will be complete agreement that it is perfectly proper. The second Section is Section 21, as amended by a subsequent Order in Council of the 1st of September, and the amended paragraph of the 5th September runs as follows:—No person.… shall by word of mouth or writing spread reports likely to create disaffection or alarm amongst any of His Majesty's forces, or among the civilian population.Everybody must admit that a power of that kind is capable of serious abuse. The difficulty I can assure hon. Members is one for the Government quite as much as for any of the Government's critics. It is a matter of the extremest gravity to come to a decision as to the kind of news which may be properly spread on the ground that it causes disaffection or alarm. I can only say that in exercising discretion upon the point, in every case action is only taken upon the advice primarily of the naval or military authorities, and in certain instances on the advice of the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, or the India Office. It is felt, and we are bound to feel, that any Government which abused that power would lay itself open to the severest condemnation by this House, and this Clause was never intended, and ought never to be used, for the mere purpose of protecting the Government as a Government from adverse criticism. It is very difficult, unless precise statements are brought to our notice—I am grateful to the hon. Member for having brought forward a particular case—to formulate the lines of the defence of a Clause of this kind. It is obviously necessary to have something of this sort. It is clear that there are reports which would create disaffection against the Crown, or would cause alarm to the public, which would have a serious influence on the nation in the conduct of the War. Everybody can think of occasions when news of that kind—
§ Lord ROBERT CECIL
Is that not all covered by the last Sub section, which 915 gives you power to prevent assistance being given to the enemy or the possibility of the War being abandoned?
§ Mr. McKENNA
It would be very difficult to prove that assistance was being given to the enemy except in a general way by depleting the forces of our people. All disaffection and all untrue alarm is weakening, and one might see that any false news is in itself bad and so far weakening to the nation. I very much doubt whether a court-martial upon the mere publication of false news would find the author of the news guilty.
§ Mr. McKENNA
If the news were true, and it was not proved that the publication of the true news was injurious to the nation in the naval or military or foreign sense, I do not believe that any court-martial would be found to convict. Let me remind the House that although this Section has been in the Act now for nearly three months, there has not been a single court-martial under it. It has never been made use of, but the power is there, and it has never been exercised. With the hon. Members leave, I will explain how it was not even exercised in the case to which he refers. The only case brought forward is what appeared to be a threat in a letter written by the Secretary of the Press Bureau to the editor of the "Globe." That letter cannot be explained without a full statement of the incidents which led up to it. There was published in the "Globe" on several occasions a statement that there were in London 250,000 armed Germans. When that statement was brought to my notice I came to the conclusion, and I think it was a justifiable conclusion, that a statement of that kind was calculated to create alarm injurious to our people. It was not stated once, but again and again, that there were 250,000 armed Germans in London. When this statement was brought to my notice I telephoned to the Secretary to the War Office, called his attention to the statement, and reminded him of the power which the War Office possessed under the Defence of the Realm Act to stop the spread of false news calculated to create alarm. I have to tell the whole of the circumstances, and so far as I was concerned that was the beginning and the 916 end of my intervention in the proceedings. An unofficial note was sent by my private secretary to the Secretary to the War Office calling attention to the same statement. The Secretary to the War Office in his discretion, believing it would be a matter which would be most quickly and readily dealt with by the Press Bureau, sent over to the Secretary of the Press Bureau an intimation that the "Globe" ought not to go on repeating that statement, which was likely to cause alarm. The Secretary to the Press Bureau then wrote a letter to the "Globe," and although the hon. Gentleman opposite criticises the style of the letter, and says it was somewhat peremptory in its terms, I think the House will agree that the terms were not too peremptory having regard to the great wickedness of alarming the London public by such a false statement as the "Globe" had made.
No further proceedings were taken against the "Globe," and the incident dropped except for this particular issue, that from that time onward I believe I was charged with having endeavoured to muzzle the Press. As far as the Government are concerned, the limitation on the muzzling was an endeavour to stop a newspaper from creating an alarm by alleging most grossly and most falsely that there were 250,000 armed Germans in London. If that is to be the only case in which there has been a misunderstanding as to the construction of the Act, while I recognise the great danger that might arise if this Section were abused, I do not think that, so far as I am aware, it has not, in fact, been abused; and I can answer for my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who has an immediate responsibility in the matter, that he is the last man in this House or out of it who would ever agree to the suppression of news merely for the purpose of saving the skin of the Government. I hope the Noble Lord is satisfied with the explanation I have given, but so far as I am concerned I feel it necessary to ask the House to continue to give the Government a power of this kind. If in a later stage of the Bill a suitable Amendment is found, or if not an Amendment of the Bill itself suitable words are suggested for insertion in the Order in Council, I do not think the Government would have the slightest objection.
§ Mr. McKENNA
In that case it would, but there are cases where it might not apply. I admit that such cases are much more rare, and apart from military and naval necessities it would be dealt with under the preceding Section. They ought not to be allowed, except under the circumstances of extreme gravity, but there is from time to time foreign news, Colonial news, and Indian news which is true, but which ought not to be published, and it would not be covered by paragraph 14, and some more general words would be necessary in order to give power to prevent the publication of news of that kind. The Amendments contained in this Bill, apart from the mere consolidation of the two preceding Acts, are fourfold. In the first place, the Bill authorises the trial by court-martial of all offences, and in minor offences it authorises the trial by a Court of Summary Jurisdiction. Next, the power of making regulations is expressly extended to the regulation of the navigation and pilotage of vessels, a matter on which the Admiralty lay very great stress. One other point. Under the original Act no offence is punishable by death. War offences are punishable by death, but war offences can only be charged against an alien. If an enemy subject committed any offence which was helpful to the enemy he would not be tried under this Act, but he would be tried for having committed a war crime, and, of course, he then could be shot; but a British subject could only be tried under the Defence of the Realm Act unless he was tried for high treason. It is proposed to extend the punishment of death to offences under this Act in cases where the intention to assist the enemy is proved. Other offences under the Act will still not be punishable by death, but I think the House will agree that where the intention to assist the enemy is proved the death sentence ought to be imposable. I have stated all the changes in the Bill, and I trust the House will allow me now to have the Second Reading.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I have no intention, and I am sure none of my hon. Friends have, of preventing the Second Reading of this Bill. The points which have been raised so far are points which can quite well be dealt with in Committee, and I am sure that we are all obliged for what the right hon. Gentleman has said, that he will consider any reasonable Amendment when the subsequent stage comes. The 918 point dwelt upon by both my hon. Friends behind me, the difference between news that is true and untrue, is, I think, a very important one, but even at a time like this the House should keep constantly before its mind that it is quite conceivable, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that there might be occasions when even true news ought not to be published. I am sure, however, the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me that he has found the Press of this country entirely ready to consider the interests of the nation and fall in with the wishes of the Government without any special pressure. I should myself have thought that it was quite sufficient to make this particular Clause apply to untrue statements, and that the Government would have been able to deal with the other kind under the Clause to which my Noble Friend behind me (Lord R. Cecil) referred, and which gives very wide powers. They are the last few words in the Sub-section to which I refer—assistance being given to the enemy or the successful prosecution of the War being endangered.These are very large powers, and I hope, when we come to a subsequent stage, the right hon. Gentleman will feel that the particular Sub-section to which exception is taken would be sufficiently strong if it applied to untrue statements circulated in that way. I should not, however, have taken the trouble to wait until this hour to take any part in this discussion but for a bigger principle which I think is involved. Unfortunately I was not present when the Solicitor-General made his statement the other day as to the principles upon which he is prepared to act in regard to the powers which are given to him as Press Censor. If I had been, I should at once have made the protest I am now going to make, and I am convinced the Solicitor-General would have explained that the words read by my hon. Friend behind me (Sir H. Craik) did not express his opinion. Let me read to the House again what these words are:—Criticism of the Government or of the Members of the Government is not that which I have ever stopped except when such criticism is of such a character that it might destroy public confidence in the Government which at the moment is charged with the conduct of the War.I ask the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member of the House to consider what that means. If these powers had been in existence at the time of the Crimean War, and the men who carried the 919 Amendment which defeated the Government had made the statement outside which they made in the House, where they carried the majority with them, they would have been liable to be dealt with under the principles laid down by the Solicitor-General. Take a case which might happen, though I do not think it is likely to happen. I think it will be agreed that the official Opposition has shown that the last thing they wish to do is to weaken the position of this Government so long as it has to carry on the War, but suppose we came to the conclusion in a vital matter that a Minister who was conducting a particular Department was incompetent, and that it was against the interests of the country that he should continue, it would be our duty to do all in our power to get rid of him. But that is precisely what the Solicitor-General says he would stop.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I believe, as I said at the beginning, that if I had been here and had called his attention to it he would have explained that he did not, but I wish at all events to make this clear protest, that it is the right not only of every Member of this House but of every newspaper in this country, and of every speaker on any platform, if he honestly believes a Member of the Government to be incompetent or that he is not properly doing his work, to try to get rid of that Member, even though his doing so does cause a weakening of confidence in the Government that is carrying on the War.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I think I have succeeded in making, as I wished, a real protest against that interpretation of his powers by the Solicitor-General, and I wish further, so far as the Solicitor-General himself is concerned, to say I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that I do not believe he would for a moment exercise these powers in a case like that. One of the difficulties, however, which I have had all through this period of the War is this: We have not wished by any criticisms to weaken the Government, and we have tried to avoid it, but Governments, like other people, are human, and if they find they are not criticised and that they can exercise powers of all kinds without 920 being called to question, the powers grow, and they become more and more inclined to be dictatorial. While it is quite true, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that they have not put these powers into effect, I am not sure—I do not say this positively—that they have not in consequence of these powers exercised a pressure on the Press which on the whole is greater than ought to have been exercised, and which in the long run might be found to be detrimental to the real interests of the country and to the successful carrying on of the War. I have said all that I wish to say. I thoroughly recognise that exceptional powers which could not be tolerated at another time must be given, but I feel most strongly that the Government should not ask for greater powers than are necessary, and that they should be most careful to show by their speeches, as well as by their acts, that they recognise the limitation of the powers which are given to them, and that they do not intend to interfere in any shape or form with legitimate criticism.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. Gulland.]