HC Deb 21 July 1915 vol 73 cc1601-8

Resolution reported,

"That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £150,000,000, be granted to His Majesty, beyond the ordinary Grants of Parliament towards defraying the Expenses which may be incurred during the year ending the 31st day of March, 1916, for General Navy and Army Services in so far as specific provision is not made there for by Parliament j for the conduct of Naval and Military Operations; for all measures which may be taken for the Security of the Country; for assisting the Food Supply, and promoting the Continuance of Trade, Industry, Business, and Communications, whether by means of insurance or indemnity against risk, the financing of the purchase and resale of food-stuffs and materials or otherwise; for Relief of Distress; and generally for all expenses, beyond those provided for in the Ordinary Grants of Parliament, arising out of the existence of a state of war."

Resolution read a second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."


In the House of Lords to-day a question was answered which Ministers in this House have refused to answer on the ground that it was not in the public interest that they should do so. We have come to a pretty state in this House, for only two or three days ago the Government put forward a Bill which originated in another place, and which could not have originated here, and now the Government actually give information in the other place which they deny to the House of Commons. That is treating the House of Commons with contempt, as His Majesty's Government have treated them right throughout since they formed this Coalition. What did Lord Newton say in the House of Lords to-day? He gave to the House of Lords the actual figures of the proportion of married men in the Army and the Territorial Force; information which was denied on this very ground in this House, and the hon. Member who put the question down was asked to take it off the Notice Paper because it was not in the public interest to answer it.

I wish to raise another point. Out of this sum we are spending in the current year we have been manufacturing, as the House knows, large quantities of fuses for the use of the Army in the field. These fuses are manufactured by armament firms and other people in this country under a licence from Krupp's, who supply the drawings for the making of these fuses to the armament firms in this country. I have raised this question several times. I raised it only last night, and I raise it again now. When I raised the question originally in the form of a question, the Government said it was true that the cost to the British Government had been increased by reason of the fact that the armament firms had agreed to pay Krupp's for this patent right, although the patents had actually expired in July of last year. I want to point out to the House that these fuses are being manufactured in this country to-day under licence from Krupp's on an unexpired patent, the full detailed drawings being actually supplied by Krupp's. The German fuse is identical with our own. That was recently admitted by the Minister of Munitions. When I put a question on the Question Paper asking if that was the fact, the Minister gets up and says that it is not in the public interest to reply. Where are we? We are treated with contempt with regard to the figures given in the other House, and when a Member raises the question in this House time after time, because it is an awkward question to answer, the Minister gets up and says it is not in the public interest to answer it.

I wish to ask you, Sir, a question on a point of Order of very great importance respecting the procedure and rights and privileges of Members of this House. The matter is so important that I do not in any way desire you to rule on the question unless you have notice of it. My point is this: A question appeared on the Paper in relation to a fuse, which I have just explained to the House is the fuse we are manufacturing in this country to-day. The Minister got up and said that it was not in the public interest to answer the question, although the facts were perfectly well known to everybody in Germany and everybody in this country. Mr. Speaker then ruled, so far as I understood—I addressed two questions to him; I am not quite clear as to the exact form in which I put the questions to him—I understood Mr. Speaker to say that if a Minister from his place in Parliament said that it was not in the public interest to answer the question, that Debate practically ceased on that question. I was even told that the matter could not be raised to-night. What I desire to know is this. If a Minister says it is not in the public interest to answer a question of this kind because it is giving information to the enemy, are Members of the House precluded thereby from raising the question on the Motion for the Adjournment, or at any other time; and is a Member further prohibited from putting a question down about this matter which a Minister says it is not in the public interest to answer? I have given the case of a Minister refusing in the public interest to answer a question which is answered in another place. I want to have it made clear, because it is a question affecting the rights and privileges of the House of Commons in a very great degree. If a Minister can put off discussion by saying he is unable to give information which is perfectly well known to every single German in this country, and therefore we in the House of Commons are not to mention what every single man in Germany is perfectly well aware of, I should like to have your ruling on that point, and if you rule that I could raise the question on the Adjournment I could then reply to any answer that the right hon. Gentleman may think fit to give. I will perhaps ask your ruling before I finish what observations I have to make.

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)

There is some difficulty in knowing which is point of Order and which is speech. It is, of course, impossible for me to say anything about the very clear ruling which was given to the hon. Member by Mr. Speaker at Question Time today. The practice of the House on that point is clear enough. A Minister gives an answer on his responsibility, and the hon. Member has to take that answer. There is no matter of debate or further discussion. With regard to the question whether the hon. Baronet will be in order on the Adjournment to-night, that, of course, will be for Mr. Speaker to deal with. It had better be left there.


I gather that your ruling is that it is in order to discuss the merits of this fuse now on this particular Vote, though it may not be on the Adjournment.


I was not giving any opinion as to whether it was in order on the Adjournment or not. If anything arises in the present Debate, I shall, if necessary, deal with it.


Then I wish to ask the Under-Secretary for War—I will ask the question which I wrote out this morning—whether he is aware that the fuse being manufactured in the factories of this country to-day is made to detailed drawings supplied to this country by Messrs. Krupp? I do not suppose he is aware of it. Can he also tell the House whether, during the course of the operations in France, large numbers of fuses have been captured by the Germans? We are told that we are giving information to the enemy. What extraordinary nonsense that we should have an argument of that kind advanced. The whole thing is so monstrous. What I object to is not only the absurdity of being told it is not in the public interest, but that we who raise these questions are to be put off and treated as if we were willing to give information to the enemy, when the last possible desire of any of us is to do anything of the kind. Our interest is the interest of our country just as much as that of right hon. Gentlemen on that bench. When we are told that it is not in the public interest to give information about a fuse which is made from German drawings, and which is identical with the German fuse, it is coming to the limit of criticism in Parliament.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for WAR (Mr. Tennant)

The question which my hon. Friend has put to me at the end of his remarks is a totally different question from that which appeared on the Notice Paper. The one on the Paper is before the House and I need not read it. But I should like the House to realise—I hoped they would do it without my statement—that in my answer given at Question Time, that I was unable to give the information because it was not considered in the public interest to do so, I was actuated by nothing but pure desire to conform to the public interest, and I meant nothing at all disrespectful to my hon. Friend. I hope the House will bear me out that in the multitudinous answers which I have given to questions it has always been my endeavour to give the fullest information, and to deny no Member of the House any information I could obtain which I thought it was not derogatory to the public interest to make public. On this question I had a good deal of conversation with my Noble Friend the Secretary of State, and he was very strongly of opinion that it was highly detrimental to the interests of this country that this matter should be discussed at all. In point of fact, if I may express my own opinion, I think the damage is really more done by the question appearing upon the Notice Paper than by any subsequent proceeding which might occur upon it. I very much deprecate giving the enemy such advice as is therein contained. I was not able to see the question in time to prevent that, and there it is. But I wish the House and the country to realise that it is not my own view only that it is not in the public interest to discuss this, but that it is held very strongly by a soldier and a Secretary of State for War. If that be so, are hon. Members who are civilians to put their knowledge of these highly complicated, purely military questions on technical subjects before that of a soldier? I am bound to say I think this is a case where one may quite fairly yield to authority, and the House will be well advised to accept the advice given by a soldier of such great experience as the Secretary of State for War. That is the opinion of so high an authority, and that being so, and we being most anxious to defeat the Germans, surely we are right in maintaining that point of view. I do not state it with dogmatism but with a certain amount of decision, because I have thought it over carefully, and I have come to the conclusion in my own mind that it is the only attitude we could adopt, and I would ask the House to support me in my attitude.


Will my hon. Friend answer the question about the House of Lords?


Of course, I have not been able to ascertain what was stated in the House of Lords, but I understand that the question answered by the Paymaster-General in that House had nothing to do with fuses or ammunition. It may have had to do with certain figures which I think were published in the White Paper on separation allowances. I really ought not to express an opinion, because I do not know. But the information that reached me was that the disclosures, such as they were, were nothing more than what has been placed before the House in the White Paper dealing with separation allowances. It may perhaps have been brought more up to date than the White Paper.


We are asked to submit our judgment to such an authority as the Secretary of State for War, especially on a technical matter such as this relating to fuses. While that is our natural disposition on subjects with which, as laymen, we are unacquainted, if we find an inconsistent policy taken up by the War Office on a question in regard to which, as laymen, we can have an opinion, what faith are we to put upon the judgment of the War Office in regard to these technical questions? That is a matter which the House is bound to consider. We have had from time to time questions put in this House as to the number of married men who have enlisted in the Regular Army and in the Territorial Army. Those questions have not been answered because it was alleged by the War Office that it was not in the public interest to answer them.


No, all I have said in answer to the question is that we had not got the material.


I am afraid my recollection differs from that of the right hon. Gentleman. The questions may not always have been addressed to the right hon. Gentleman. I know in one particular instance information was refused to the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Hogge). I know also that the hon. Member for Northants was asked to withdraw a question from the Paper for this very reason, that it was not in the public interest, and the figures were given to him privately, expressly on the understanding that he should make no public use of them. I walked into the House of Lords casually this afternoon, and I found that the House of Lords is really the place where one can get information. I found that a question was put by Lord Devonport on this particular matter, as to the number of married men who had enlisted, and the amount paid in separation allowances. Lord Newton answered the question, and informed the House of Lords that in the Regular Army there were 606,000 married men, and that in the Territorial Army there were 237,000, making a total of 843,000 married men who have enlisted in these two branches of the Service. When we find this information given in the House of Lords, and denied to Members of the House of Commons, what faith have we in the statement made on behalf of the War Office that such and such a question cannot be answered because it is not in the public interest to answer it? The House of Commons is entitled to some definite statement of principle from Ministers as to the considerations which decide them in coming to a conclusion that any particular question cannot be answered on account of the public interest. Unless we get such a statement the Government will be faced time after time with questions put to them, and which will be persisted in, in spite of their profession that it is not in the public interest to answer them. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Sir A. Markham) has some acquaintance with this matter. He has taken the trouble to find out from armament makers in this country what is the history of this particular fuse. He knows exactly what that history is. It was he who exposed in this House the fact that Krupp's were entitled to royalty on these fuses. After a great many evasions he exposed in this House the fact that Krupp's were entitled to this royalty. Moreover, anyone can know for himself that the Germans can pick up the shells in their lines that we are firing, and find out exactly the nature of the fuse. Therefore, to suggest for one moment that the slightest particle of information could be communicated to the enemy by a frank and candid answer to that question, is really to make a suggestion which is hardly creditable to the intelligence of the Government.

Question put, and agreed to.